The landmark Urgenda climate ruling is under appeal by the Dutch governmentA court in the Hague will hear the Dutch government appeal of the Urgenda decision which mandated emissions reductions. Photo credit: Getty Images

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By Ucilia Wang

Update: Following the hearing, the Hague Court of Appeal said it would announce its decision on the government appeal on Oct. 9.

A landmark climate case in the Netherlands, the first to rule that a government has a constitutional duty to protect its citizens from the impacts of climate change, is heading back to court on Monday for a hearing on the Dutch government’s appeal.

The Dutch court’s ruling in  Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands in 2015 ordered the government to take more aggressive action to cut carbon emissions. It inspired similar lawsuits around the world from activist groups and citizens trying to compel governments to act more decisively on the climate crisis.  

The lawsuit was filed by the Urgenda Foundation and 886 citizens in 2013, seeking to hold the government accountable for its promises to aggressively cut emissions at a time when the country was falling behind in reaching its renewable energy goals.

“The case completely changed the political debate on climate policy. Now it is the top topic in Dutch politics,” said Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel of Urgenda Foundation in Amsterdam. “The case created an enormous amount of hope around the world for people who lost faith in the political process.”

While the government has made progress in cutting emissions—van Berkel said it had reduced them 13 percent by the end of 2017—it is unclear whether it is on track to reach the 25 percent reduction by 2020 that was ordered by the Hague District Court in its 2015 ruling.  

The government has promised to shut down all coal power plants by 2030 and build more offshore wind farms. But it also appealed the Urgenda decision to the Hague Court of Appeal because it says no national or international law requires it to hit emissions reduction targets and it should have the flexibility to change the target. It also said the court shouldn’t interfere with the government’s process of setting climate policy.

The government did not respond to request for comment on Monday’s hearing.

The lower court’s ruling inspired lawsuits subsequently filed in countries such as Norway, Pakistan, Ireland, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Similar cases also have showed up in the U.S., including two pending cases, Juliana v. United States and Clean Air Council v. United States.

“Urgenda was among that small number of cases that really uncorked the bottle of climate litigation” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “Regardless of whether the Dutch government were to succeed in this appeal, it’s not going to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Before filing the lawsuit, Urgenda had asked the government to agree to cut emissions by 40 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020, an upper-end target for developed countries that was recommended by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

The 2-degree marker became one of the goals in the Paris Climate Agreement, which set a more ambitious aim of 1.5 degrees. The agreement was signed by 195 countries, with each setting its own voluntary goals for emissions reductions.

In response to Urgenda’s request in 2012, the Dutch government said it would work with the European Union and other countries to come up with better plans for all involved, but it didn’t pledge the 40 percent reduction.

Shortly after the ruling, the Dutch government said it would work to meet the 25 percent mandate even as it appealed the case.

The Dutch government said it disagreed with how the court defined the government’s “duty of care” to protect the environment for its people.

That phrase frames the core of the decision, which asserts that the government has a legal obligation to live up to its commitment to cut emissions.  

“What’s remarkable about the Urgenda decision is the court said it must assume that the government takes these commitments with the intent to meet them. Therefore, these commitments you’ve undertaken help us define what your duty of care is,” Muffett said.

“Soaring speeches are cheap. Real climate action is hard,” Muffett added.

After the upcoming hearing on Monday, the Hague Court of Appeal will issue a ruling, likely by the end of the year, van Berkel said. The case could make its way to the country’s supreme court on further appeal.