Wildfires, a hallmark of climate change, ravaged Portugal in 2017One of the plaintiffs in a climate case against the European Union was a victim of the wildfires that ravaged Portugal in 2017. Photo credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

A lawsuit dubbed the People’s Climate Case, which challenges the European Union’s 2030 emissions reduction target and other climate policies, was given the green light by a court on Monday and is moving forward.

The European General Court accepted the case brought by 10 families from Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Kenya and Fiji and a youth association in Sweden. The case was first filed in May, but the court’s acceptance means that the defendants, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, have two months to file their response.

The families contend that the EU’s current target to reduce emissions—40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—is insufficient and fails to protect their fundamental rights. They also demand that three regulatory acts designed to implement that target be nullified as a more stringent target is set.

“The EU’s existing 2030 climate target is too low to protect people and their fundamental rights,” said Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, which is supporting the plaintiffs. “We firmly believe that this court case will prove that the climate target needs to be significantly raised to ensure a safe future for all of us.”

The case is modeled after the first successful lawsuit challenging a government’s climate target, the Urgenda case in the Netherlands. A Dutch court ruled in 2015 that the Dutch government must increase its targeted reductions to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. The government appealed the decision and a hearing was held in May, with no ruling yet announced. The case has inspired other legal actions around the world challenging government climate policies.

Citizens in the United Kingdom, for example, sued the British government last December demanding more ambitious climate action, including a more stringent 2050 emissions reduction target. Following a preliminary hearing in July, the court decided not to move the case forward. Plan B, the group supporting the plaintiffs, has already filed an appeal.

The European Union case, while still in an early stage, gives the movement more momentum.

“This is an immensely significant development,” said Tim Crosland, executive director of Plan B. “The most challenging hurdle in climate change litigation can be persuading a court to engage fully in issues that appear to be embedded in complex economic and political considerations. But once that threshold is overcome, as it has been here, and a court is forced to confront the reality that the EU’s climate policies are insufficient, according to science, to avoid intolerable risks to millions of people across the Union, the prospects of success become much brighter.”

“The fact that the court has accepted our case gives me some hope. We need to act now,” said Sanna Vannar, president of the Swedish Saami Youth Association, Sáminuorra.

Two hallmarks of climate change, extreme heat and wildfires, have plagued Europe this summer, underscoring the urgency for climate activists.

“The wildfires destroyed my property in 2017. This year, we are once again struggling with massive heatwaves and wildfires in Europe,” said Armando Carvalho, a Portuguese plaintiff who lost his tree plantations to a wildfire last year. “Since the beginning of this summer, many other people lost their lives and homes due to worsening impacts of climate change. We cannot remain silent to this. This case is about our common future and we are glad to be one step closer to be heard.”

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