Dutch Ruling on Climate Change Opens the Door to More Aggressive Action

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There was big news coming out of Europe last week, other than the ongoing Greek banking crisis. A district court in The Hague made a ruling in a climate change lawsuit that could have far-reaching consequences. A group called the Urgenda Foundation, along with some 900 co-plaintiffs, filed suit against the Dutch government for not taking sufficient action against climate change. The case was filed in November 2013, after a letter written a year earlier, asking for more action received a response that acknowledged that the Dutch government's action were insufficient. The lawsuit was based on “the principle that the government can be held legally accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm.”

The action was largely inspired by the book, Revolution Justified, written by the Dutch lawyer Roger Cox, who made the case for such a suit in a piece published in The Guardian. He later gave a TEDx talk on the subject entitled “How EU Action Couild Save Earth from Climate Disaster.”

The suit made three specific requests of the court:

  1. To declare that global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide.

  2. To declare that the Dutch State is acting unlawfully by not contributing its proportional share to preventing a global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

  3. To order the Dutch State to drastically reduce Dutch CO2 emissions even before 2020 to the level that has been determined by scientists to be in line with less than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming; that is, to reduce Dutch emissions by 40% by 2020 below 1990 levels.

The court upheld the position of the plaintiffs, ruling that, “the State must take more action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. The State also has to ensure that the Dutch emissions in the year 2020 will be at least 25% lower than those in 1990. The parties agree that the severity and scope of the climate problem make it necessary to take measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Based on the State’s current policy, the Netherlands will achieve a reduction of 17% at most in 2020,

which is below the norm of 25% to 40% for developed countries deemed necessary in climate science and international climate policy. The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment. The State is responsible for effectively controlling the Dutch emission levels. Moreover, the costs of the measures ordered by the court are not unacceptably high. Therefore, the State should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts. Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

The court went on to demand more aggressive targets, saying that “A higher reduction target for 2020 (40%, 30% or 25%) will cause lower total, cumulated greenhouse gas emissions across a longer period of time in comparison with the target of less than 20% chosen by the State. The court agrees with Urgenda that by choosing this reduction path, even though it is also aimed at realising the 2°C target, will, in fact, make significant contributions to the risk of hazardous climate change, and can therefore not be deemed as a sufficient and acceptable alternative to the scientifically proven and acknowledged higher reduction path of 25-40% in 2020.

The ruling was in keeping with the Oslo Principles, which hold that “regardless of the existence of international agreements, governments already have a legal obligation to avert the harmful effects of climate change, based on existing international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.”

Although the Netherlands is a small country, whose overall emissions represent only 0.54% of the global total, the impact of this action lies more in the fact that it opens the door for similar suits to be filed in other countries. As Urgenda pointed out on their website, "This is the first time that a judge has legally required a State to take precautions against climate change." Having now established a legal precedent, it should now be easier for other countries to obtain similar rulings. What this means is that as governments are pressured to take action, this should further ease the way for pro-renewable and low carbon policies.

Image credit: Ronny RIchert: Flickr Creative Commons