The Supreme Court of the Netherlands on Friday ordered the government to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a nation has been required by its courts to take action against climate change.
Because of climate change, “the lives, well-being and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened,” Justice Kees Streefkerk, the chief justice, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.”
Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said the decision was groundbreaking. “There have been 1,442 climate lawsuits around the world,” he said. “This is the strongest decision ever. The Dutch Supreme Court upheld the first court order anywhere directing a country to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.”
It was the third court victory in the case for the environmental group Urgenda, which filed the lawsuit in 2013 against the Dutch government with nearly 900 co-plaintiffs.
In 2015, the The Hague District Court ordered the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% from 1990 levels in the following five years. The lawsuit had demanded reductions of between 25% and 40%.
That decision, based partly on theories of human rights, stated that the possibility of damages to current and future generations was so great and concrete that, given its duty of care, “the state must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change.”
The government appealed that decision. In October 2018, The Hague Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Urgenda. In that case, the court, citing obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, stated that the government was “acting unlawfully” by not taking stronger action to reduce emissions and that “a reduction obligation of at least 25% by end-2020, as ordered by the district court, is in line with the State’s duty of care.”
The government appealed that decision as well, this time to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. In September, the procurator general and advocate general, who advise the court, published an opinion urging the justices to reject the government’s arguments.
In the ruling Friday, Streefkerk said the argument that a cut in emissions in the Netherlands would not have a big effect on a global level did not absolve a country from taking measures to reduce its own emissions. “Every country is responsible for its share,” he said.
In practical terms, the decision Friday will very likely require the government to take stronger action to reach the 25% reduction. That might include closing coal-fired power plants, some of which opened as recently as 2016.
The Dutch government had already committed to reducing emissions, and the country’s environmental agency has estimated that its efforts will reduce emissions between 19% and 26% by the end of 2020.
Since the decision requires reductions of at least 25%, the estimates at the lower end are now unacceptable, said Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel for the Urgenda Foundation.
He added that the case has application far beyond his small country. “These human rights, they’re not unique to the Netherlands,” he said. “We think and expect that other lawyers and courts will be looking at this judgment for inspiration about how to deal with this issue.”
The Dutch case has already inspired similar suits against national governments in Europe – including in Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, Switzerland and Norway – and from plaintiffs around the world against the European Union, part of a larger trend of citizens seeking action from the courts on climate issues.
In the United States, climate policy has been influenced by the courts numerous times, and the number of lawsuits against the federal government has grown.
In a 2007 case, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court supported the state’s argument that the Clean Air Act empowered the government to regulate greenhouse gases. A federal suit on behalf of young people awaits trial in Oregon after a labyrinthine path of pretrial filings and appeals that have reached the Supreme Court twice already.
Global governmental action on climate change has lost momentum since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was reached. President Donald Trump has begun the process of withdrawing the United States from the agreement, and the most recent climate talks to move the process forward, which were held in Madrid, were widely considered a disappointment.
In response to Friday’s ruling in the Netherlands, Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former president of Ireland, said, “After the U.N. climate talks in Madrid, the urgency of increasing our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could not be clearer.” The new decision, she said, “affirms that governments are under a legal obligation, as well as a moral obligation, to significantly increase their ambition on climate change. Our human rights depend on it.”
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Damian Rau, was 12 years old when the case was first filed. In a statement from Urgenda, he called the judgment “an example to the world that no one is powerless and everybody can make a difference.”
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