Germany's climate case was dismissed, but protesters claiming a right to a safe climate were heartened by the judge's ruling recognizing that right. Photo credit: Michele Tantussi/AFP via Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

A German court has dismissed a climate lawsuit against the German government by three farming families and Greenpeace Germany. The Berlin Administrative Court ruled Thursday that the plaintiffs’ fundamental rights had not yet been violated by the government’s failure to meet its 2020 emission reduction target, as the complaint alleged

The court did, however, recognize that climate change causes harms that could constitute human rights violations. The government had argued that climate change does not violate fundamental rights and that courts cannot intervene on matters of climate policy. Presiding judge Hans-Ulrich Marticke rejected this argument, finding that climate-related claims are admissible in principle. But he ultimately concluded the government has discretion to set policy and act on climate change. “We have to respect the scope for action of the executive,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed last year, seeking to compel the government to meet its 2020 climate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels, a target the government acknowledged it would not meet. The latest projections indicate German emissions have declined by around 33 to 34 percent below 1990 levels. A report commissioned by the government earlier this year found that the country would miss its 2030 target of 55 percent reduction in emissions if no additional measures—such as phasing out coal—were taken. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced incentives and other measures in September aimed at getting Germany back on track to meet its 2030 goal. 

Some say these actions don’t go far enough, and the German plaintiffs say the government’s failure to meet its 2020 target contributes to the worsening climate crisis that violates their fundamental rights. The three families who make their living as organic farmers already experience economic harm and argue their livelihoods are threatened as climate impacts grow more severe. 

Plaintiff Silke Backsen, from the island of Pellworm in the North Sea, said she was disappointed by the court’s decision to dismiss the case. “The court has not done what is good for our future,” she said. “This ruling does not save a single tonne of CO2. We are already significantly affected by the climate crisis. How bad does it have to get?”

The ruling, however, might open the door for future lawsuits, according to Dr. Roda Verheyen, who represented the plaintiffs.

“For the first time in history, a German court has ruled that people’s fundamental rights can be violated by the impacts of global heating,” she said. “The court did not recognize a particular violation today, but that is not out of the question in the future.” 

“The court has confirmed two things: Climate cases are generally admissible and climate protection means protection of fundamental rights. We will now examine possible next steps for our claims,” said Greenpeace Germany climate expert Lisa Göldner. 

The families may decide to appeal the decision once they receive a written judgment. 

The German case and similar climate lawsuits seeking to force governments to take more aggressive climate action have been inspired by the landmark 2015 ruling in Urgenda v. the Netherlands, that ordered the Dutch government to reduce emissions at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 in order to protect citizens’ fundamental rights. The Dutch government has appealed that decision twice and it now rests with the Supreme Court. Other lawsuits challenging government climate policies and targets have since been dismissed, including in the U.K., Ireland, and the European Union

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