Hurricane Ophelia lashed Penzance, England in 2016, the latest climate change-driven storm to cause major damage.When Hurricane Ophelia lashed the United Kingdom in 2016, it was the latest climate change-fueled storm to cause major damage. Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Joining a growing global trend to demand governments protect their citizens from climate catastrophe, a group in the United Kingdom has sued the government for failing to take ambitious action on climate change.

A group of 11 plaintiffs ranging in age from 9 to 79 filed a lawsuit in the UK’s High Court in December supported by the nonprofit Plan B. They claim the government’s 2050 carbon target is unlawful based on the latest science and runs counter to the UK’s commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Plaintiffs seek to compel the government to revise the 2050 target, established by the 2008 Climate Change Act. That law required an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below 1990 levels. At the time, this was thought to be consistent with limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

The current scientific consensus, however, recognizes that even a 2 degrees C limit is not necessarily “safe.” The Paris Agreement reflects this understanding, setting the more ambitious goal “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

“This case is the first major test of the Paris Agreement’s legal significance,” Plan B director Tim Crosland told Climate Liability News. “If our case is successful we will have shown that the Paris Agreement is more than just a fig-leaf for government inaction.”

Recognizing that politicians are unlikely to act voluntarily to overcome this emissions gap, Plan B was launched in 2016 to pursue a legal strategy to demand action.

The group and the 11 co-plaintiffs are now awaiting a decision on whether the case will be allowed to proceed. The defendants include Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,  and the government’s Committee on Climate Change. They responded to the legal challenge (called a judicial review) in written positions. According to Crosland, the Secretary of State and of the Committee on Climate Change took conflicting positions.

“Incredibly, it turns out that the Government’s refusal to revise the 2050 target following the Paris Agreement was based on a simple misunderstanding with the Committee,” he explained. “The Government thought the Committee had advised it that greater ambition was not technically feasible. The Committee denies this. In fact it says that greater ambition is perfectly feasible.”

Given this inconsistency, and the robust science that supports more aggressive action on climate change, Crosland believes he has a strong case.

“We’re confident our claim will ultimately succeed,” he said. “We will be going to Court (probably in the next 4-6 weeks) to argue for permission for a full hearing. We hope to have a full hearing later in the year.”

A Growing Trend

Plan B’s action against the UK government is part of a burgeoning movement worldwide to challenge government policies on climate change in the courtroom. In June 2015, the Urgenda Foundation in the Netherlands won a groundbreaking victory against the Dutch government when the district court of The Hague ruled that the government must adopt more stringent emission reduction targets of at least 25 percent reduction by 2020. This was the first time a court has ordered that government has a legal obligation to take precautions against climate change. The Dutch government has appealed the ruling, and a hearing at The Hague Court of Appeal is scheduled for May 28.

Just a few months after the historic Urgenda ruling, an appeals court in Pakistan decided in favor of a Pakistani farmer in ruling the government failed to abide by a 2012 climate change law and thus “offend the fundamental rights of the citizens.” And last November, a New Zealand court ruled that the former Minister for Climate Change had improperly and unlawfully failed to revise the country’s 2050 climate target in light of the latest scientific consensus published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014. Similar lawsuits against governments are emerging in Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, India and Uganda. In the U.S., 21 youth plaintiffs have sued the federal government for violation of their constitutional rights and the public trust doctrine. That case, Juliana v. United States, is awaiting a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals  decision on an unusual request by the government to short-circuit the case.

“It’s hugely encouraging to see the rapidly emerging global movement of climate litigation,” said Crosland. “Governments know exactly what needs to be done, but they’re not doing it. Accountability through the courts is now our best bet for changing that.”

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