Urgenda Foundation celebrates Dutch court ruling upholding emissions reductionsPlaintiffs celebrate a Dutch appeals court ruling upholding the historic Urgenda decision that the Netherlands must reduce emissions to protect its citizens. Photo credit: Urgenda Foundation

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By Ucilia Wang

An appeals court in the Netherlands upheld a historic ruling that requires the Dutch government to reduce emissions in the name of protecting the rights of its citizens.

The Hague Court of Appeal on Tuesday denied the request of the government to overturn the lower court ruling in Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands, which ruled in 2015 that the Dutch government must reduce emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

The plaintiffs in the case, the Urgenda Foundation and a group of 886 citizens, cited the European Convention on Human Rights as a basis of their complaint, a novel approach that has inspired other cases around the world. They also pointed to data showing that the government has had limited success in cutting emissions so far—only  13 percent, leaving only two more years to reach 25 percent.

“The court said climate change is a grave danger, and the action of the government is violating the rights of it citizens,” said Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel of the Urgenda Foundation in Amsterdam.

“The European Convention on Human Rights applies to other countries. But it’s not just about specific provisions. It’s about the universality of the ruling, where the court says humans have a fundamental rights to be protected from this danger,” van Berkel said.

The ruling will also likely have a significant impact beyond Europe. Internationally, climate lawsuits are increasingly popular as the impacts of climate change grow more visible and damaging.

Since the case was filed in 2013, similar lawsuits have popped up in countries including the U.S., Norway, Pakistan, Ireland, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

These lawsuits are trying to hold either governments or fossil fuel companies accountable for the effects of climate change. Many seek policy actions to cut emissions and limit fossil fuel development; others ask for compensation to help communities deal with damages from climate impacts like intense wildfires, hurricanes and threats to public health.

A U.S. case that is headed to trial in Oregon later this month has survived numerous legal challenges from the Department of Justice, which is trying to have the case halted. The government attorneys filed its latest motion to delay the case last Friday.

The case, Juliana v. United States, was filed in 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs who argue that the government’s support of fossil fuel development has exacerbated climate change and violated the public trust doctrine as well as their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The case has surprised scholars in how far it has advanced.

“The rights from the European Convention on Human Rights very much resonate in the constitutional rights that the federal court in Oregon has established,” Van Berkel said.

The Urgenda ruling came a day after the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire warning about the need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels by 2030. That target was added to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement as a concession to island countries that will absorb the heaviest impacts of more intense hurricanes, sea level rise and other natural disasters. The agreement set 2 degrees Celsius as the primary goal.

Scientists for the IPCC report acknowledged that they had underestimated how the difference of 0.5C could unleash significantly more destruction to the wildlife and the environment and affect humans in the process as more droughts and floods lead to public health crisis and food shortage. The world has already warmed 1 degree C since pre-industrial times.

The IPCC report, coupled with the Urgenda ruling, will help to frame the U.N. negotiations on climate change in Poland this December, said Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C.

“You have a court decision immediately after the IPCC report that said relying on hypothetical technology is not a responsible answer to the crisis of climate change. That’s tremendously significant,” Muffett said.

Van Berkel said the new IPCC report underscored the urgency for the Dutch government to not only act but to cut emissions more than 25 percent, which is at the low end of the range to keep temperatures from rising 2C. The government had pledged to cut emissions by 30 percent but when it was slow to implement those policies, the Urgenda lawsuit was filed.

After losing the case in the lower court three years ago, the government announced it would start to implement policies to cut emissions by 25 percent, which the plaintiffs in the Urgenda case argued was the minimum that the government needed to undertake. But the plan it put in place, such as phasing out all coal power plants, was still more about hitting long-term goals beyond 2020, and the latest court ruling told the government it needs to hit the short-term goal, van Berkel said.

Despite promising it would lower emissions, the government said at the time it would  appeal because it disagreed with the court’s opinion that the government had a “duty of care” to protect the environment for its people. That phrase formed the heart of the decision that established a legal obligation to cut emissions. The government argued that the court shouldn’t interfere with its ability to set climate policies.

“For the Dutch government, the Urgenda procedure is not about climate policy. Instead it is about the basic question whether it is legitimate for an independent legal court to judge on government policy and in doing so, change that policy,” Paul van der Zanden, a spokesman for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, wrote in an email after the appeals court ruling.

The government is considering whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Van der Zanden said regardless of the appeal, the government will work to meet the 25 percent reduction, which he said is “feasible” by 2020.

“The Dutch government is fully committed to execute this verdict,” he said.