The European Council, led by President Donald Tusk, is among the defendants in a new climate suit.The European Council, led by current president Donald Tusk, is among the defendants in a suit seeking stronger EU climate action. Photo credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

A new lawsuit is challenging the European Union’s climate policies, including the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction target, and demanding more ambitious climate action to protect human rights.

Dubbed the “People’s Climate Case,” the legal action was filed by 10 families, most from European countries but one from as far away as Fiji. The families argue that the EU’s current target to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 is not enough to protect their rights to life, health, occupation, and property.

“Climate change is already an issue for the courts in the European countries and around the world,” said Roda Verheyen, a lawyer representing the families. “The plaintiff families are putting their trust in the EU courts and legal system to protect their fundamental rights of life, health, occupation and property, which are under threat of climate change. The EU courts must now listen to these families and ensure that they are protected.”

The case was filed on May 24 in European General Court in Luxembourg. Defendants are the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

The lawsuit demands nullification of three recent climate policies: the Emissions Trading Scheme Directive, the Effort Sharing Regulation and the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry Regulation. These regulatory acts are aimed at reducing emissions by the 40 percent goal, but the lawsuit claims the target is far too low to protect citizens’ fundamental rights and demands a more stringent target.

Additionally, the families are asking for an injunction because damage to property, livelihoods and health is already occurring due to climate change and the EU is legally obligated to do everything in its power to prevent further harm. These obligations stem from EU primary law, including the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as international law.

“In 2015, as part of the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Yet, it is clear that the existing EU 2030 climate target is not enough to respect the commitments taken in the Paris Agreement and should be increased,” said Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, which is supporting the plaintiffs’ case. In addition to CAN, several other organizations are assisting. The German group Protect the Planet has agreed to take on plaintiffs’ legal costs and the scientific think tank Climate Analytics is providing scientific background to the case.  

Climate Impacts Happening Already

The families bringing the lawsuit come from different countries, but they share lifestyles deeply rooted in the environment. They say climate change and environmental degradation has already disrupted their lives.

The Feschet family from southern France has owned a lavender farm for generations. But droughts and seasonal changes exacerbated by a warming climate have devastated the lavender crop. Maurice Feschet wrote in the complaint: “44% in 6 years: this is the concrete loss of lavender harvest we are faced with in Provence due to the impacts of climate change hitting us harder and harder.”

A Portuguese beekeeping family is similarly facing economic hardship due to a changing climate. “Today, we don’t have four seasons anymore, only winter and summer. This situation is disturbing the work of the bees because they take more time to adapt to climatic variations. The decrease in honey production, which has been continuous over the years, has reduced my family’s economic income,” plaintiff Ildebrando Conceição wrote. Two other Portuguese families working in sustainable forestry and an agricultural cooperative are also part of the case.

Families from northern Germany and northern Italy that are dependent on tourism business are likewise impacted by climate change, as are a traditional herding family from Romania and the Sáminuorra youth association, part of an indigenous herding culture in Sweden.

A family from northern Kenya and a family from Fiji have also joined the case. As stated on the People’s Climate Case website, this is “the first case to argue that the EU’s Fundamental Rights should also protect citizens who live outside the European Union if they are suffering because of EU activities. Through this case, they remind the EU of its international responsibilities.”

Part of a Larger Legal Trend

These plaintiffs are not alone in turning to the courts for climate justice. Similar climate lawsuits against governments have emerged in Europe and around the world.

A landmark Netherlands climate case brought by the Urgenda Foundation won a court ruling in 2015 directing the Dutch government to increase its carbon emission reduction target. Last week, the case was back in court on appeal, with the government arguing for the ruling to be overturned.

In July, the nonprofit Plan B will be in court making its case for legal action against the British government. Plan B and 11 citizens sued the UK government in December seeking a more ambitious 2050 climate target.

And in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia in November a network of citizens in Ireland sued the Irish government for not adequately responding to climate change. Other suits have been brought challenging government policies in Norway, Belgium, and Switzerland.

These suits are part of a global movement to compel governments to protect citizens, particularly younger generations, by forcing more aggressive action on climate change.

“There’s a rapidly growing movement of these citizen-based actions that is by now unstoppable,” said Tim Crosland, director of Plan B. “A few years ago people felt powerless to confront their government’s inaction on climate change. But following the success of Urgenda’s case against the Dutch Government in 2015, the genie is out of the bottle: people everywhere understand there’s a viable alternative to resignation. Accountability is essential if we’re to escape the worst impacts of climate change, and governments are being made to account for their inaction through the courts.”

“We have only some years left to act; this is about the survival of mankind,” said Dorothea Sick-Thies, founder of Protect the Planet. “A broad coalition is taking the responsibility that governments and the European Parliament are not willing to take. This is what we stand for in the People’s Climate Case.”