A Dutch court recently upheld the historic Urgenda climate rulingA Dutch appeals court recently upheld the landmark Urgenda climate ruling, but the government said it will appeal again. Photo credit: Chantal Bekker/Urgenda Foundation

By Ucilia Wang

The Dutch government announced it will appeal a ruling in the landmark Urgenda case that requires the government to reduce emissions to protect its people, a ruling the framed climate change as a human rights issue.

Eric Wiebes, minister of economic affairs and climate policy, announced the government will ask the Supreme Court to review the latest ruling in Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands, which ruled that the government must cut emissions by 25 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020. The court noted that the 25 percent reduction is the minimum needed for the country to meet its international climate commitments.

The case was originally filed in 2013 by the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens, seeking to hold the government accountable to its climate promises.

The case is unusual for arguing that the government is violating the human rights of its people by failing to address climate change, which leads to a host of environmental and public health harms, including  sea level rise, extreme heat, drought, more intense wildfires and extreme weather.

The initial court ruling in favor the plaintiffs in 2015 is widely credited for kick-started similar lawsuits in other countries, including  the U.S., Norway, Pakistan, Ireland, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Since that first ruling, the Dutch government has maintained that it would work on hitting the 25 percent target while fighting the court opinion that it had a “duty of care” to protect the environment for its people. The government argued that the court is interfering with its ability to set climate policies. The appeals court affirmed the lower court ruling in October.

The decision to appeal to the Supreme Court “sends the wrong message,” said Dennis van Berkel,  legal counsel for the Urgenda Foundation. He pointed to the recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that issued a dire warning about the catastrophic consequences of allowing global warming to climb above 1.5 Celsius from pre-industrial levels by 2030.

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

“It’s clear that what we have to do is to reduce emissions as fast as possible. What we need is a real climate leadership. The government will show real leadership if it shows we will act and get on with it,” van Berkel added.

Data shows that the country has managed to reduce emissions by only 13 percent from the 1990 levels by the end of 2017, leaving a big gap to get to the 25 percent in two years.

The government has talked about closing coal power plants and other measures to help it achieve the 2020 goal.

It has until Jan. 9 to file the appeal with the Supreme Court, which could take up to  a year to decide the case, van Berkel said.

Connecting climate change impacts to human rights violations is a relatively new legal approach that is being put to test in courts around the world. In the U.S., a case brought by 21 young plaintiffs against the federal government, Juliana v. United States, has been stalled by volleys of petitions by the government to prevent it from going to trial.

In the Juliana case, the plaintiffs contend that the government’s support of fossil fuel development is leading to worsening climate impacts, which violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property as well as the public trust doctrine, which holds that governments are bound to protect cultural or natural resources for future generations.

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