Germany's government, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, face a lawsuit over failed emissions targetsGermany's government, and Chancellor Angela Merkel (center) face a lawsuit by three farming families over the country's climate policy. Photo credit: German government via Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

Three families in Germany are suing their government hoping to compel it to cut carbon emissions as it has promised, joining a growing trend of citizens worldwide taking legal action against national governments over insufficient climate policies.

Greenpeace Germany filed the lawsuit last week on the families’ behalf. The complaint alleges that the government’s failure to meet its 2020 climate target violates the families’ rights to life and health. In 2007, the German government pledged to cut its emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but now says it will not meet that target.

The three families—the Backsens, the Blohms, and the Lütke Schwienhorsts—are organic farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change.

The German government now says the country’s emissions will fall only 32 percent by 2020 and said instead of working toward meeting that goal it will instead focus on meeting its 2030 goal of a 55 percent reduction.   

But plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are asking the court to declare that the government is obligated to still comply with its 2020 target.

The lawsuit will test whether or not the target is legally binding, as plaintiffs claim it is. While the government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, had officially set the target and passed Cabinet resolutions aimed at implementing it, it had not committed to the target in actual legislation.

“In essence, the success of the lawsuit depends on whether the court follows us, that the 2020 climate change target is a judicially justifiable act. Only then can it be checked by the courts at all,” Roda Verheyen, the German attorney representing the plaintiffs, explained in an interview.

Verheyen is not new to climate lawsuits. She is involved in both the Lliuya v. RWE case—in which a Peruvian farmer is suing a Germany utility for climate impacts in his home country—and the People’s Climate Case, in which 10 families, including one in Germany, are challenging the European Union over its 2030 climate target.

One of the three families in the new German lawsuit lives on an island in the North Sea. Silke and Jörg Backsen own an organic cattle and cereal farm on the island of Pellworm. Most of the island sits a meter below sea level, so flooding and rising seas are a constant concern. In September 2017, one-third of the island  was completely underwater. Drought also impacts the Backsen farm, which has been in the family for centuries.

The other two plaintiffs, the Blohm family and the Lütke Schwienhorst family, are also trying to protect the farms that their families have maintained for centuries. The Blohms are organic fruit farmers and the Lütke Schwienhorst family owns an organic dairy farm. Climate change and associated extreme weather are severely impacting both types of farming, the families say.

“The plaintiff families are already experiencing a foretaste of how existentially the climate crisis can become with us,” Anike Peters, climate expert for Greenpeace, said in a statement. “The federal government must do everything so that climate change will not endanger the livelihoods of families in the future.”

The case is inspired by a successful climate lawsuit in the Netherlands that challenged the Dutch government’s emissions reduction target. An appeals court recently upheld the landmark 2015 decision that requires the government cut emissions by at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Legal actions against governments relating to climate change have been on the rise in recent years. According to a 2017 report, hundreds of climate change lawsuits have been filed in nearly 25 countries around the world. Besides the Urgenda ruling in the Netherlands, plaintiffs in Pakistan and Colombia have received favorable outcomes. Current lawsuits attempting to force governments to take more urgent climate action are underway in Ireland, the UK, Norway, and the United States.

One U.S. case, brought by 21 youth plaintiffs alleging violation of Constitutional rights and of the public trust doctrine, is currently on hold awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court. It had been scheduled to start trial in Eugene, Ore. on Monday.