Swiss women score landmark climate win in European court decision

9 April 2024, 12:54

Europe Climate Lawsuits
Europe Climate Lawsuits. Picture: PA

The court said the country ‘had failed to comply with its duties’ to combat climate change and meet emissions targets.

Europe’s highest human rights court has ruled its member nations must protect their citizens from the consequences of climate change in a landmark ruling that sided with a group of 2,000 Swiss women against their government.

The case could now have implications across the continent.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected two other, similar cases — a high-profile one brought by Portuguese young people and another by a French mayor that sought to force governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But those plaintiffs rejoiced, nonetheless, since the Swiss case sets a legal precedent in the Council of Europe’s 46 member states against which future lawsuits will be judged.

“The most important thing is that the court has said in the Swiss women’s case that governments must cut their emissions more to protect human rights,” said 19-year-od Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese plaintiffs.

“So, their win is a win for us, too, and a win for everyone.”

Europe Climate Lawsuits
People demonstrate outside the European Court of Human Rights (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

The Swiss women were overjoyed as they descended to the court building’s foyer to cheers and applause.

“I am overwhelmed at the result,” Pia Hollenstein, one of the women, said after the hearing.

The court — which is unrelated to the European Union — faulted Switzerland for not giving sufficient protection to the Senior Women for Climate Protection, whose average age is 74 and who argued that older women are most vulnerable to the extreme heat that is becoming more frequent.

The court said the country “had failed to comply with its duties” to combat climate change and meet emissions targets.

That, the court ruled, constituted a violation of the women’s rights, noting that the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees people “effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life”.

“This is a turning point,” said Corina Heri, an expert in climate change litigation at the University of Zurich.

Europe Climate Lawsuits
Swiss member of Senior Women for Climate Rosmarie Wydler-Walti talks to Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

Although activists have had successes with lawsuits in domestic proceedings, this was the first time an international court ruled on climate change — and the first ruling confirming that countries have an obligation to protect people from its effects, according to Ms Heri.

She said it would open the door to more legal challenges in the countries that are members of the Council of Europe, which includes the 27 EU nations as well as many others from Britain to Turkey.

Celebrity climate activist Greta Thunberg was in the courtroom as the decision was announced.

“These rulings are a call to action. They underscore the importance of taking our national governments to court,” the 21-year-old Swede told The Associated Press.

Switzerland said it would study the decision to see what steps would be needed. “We have to, in good faith, implement and execute the judgment,” Alain Chablais, who represented the country at last year’s hearings, told the AP.

Judge Siofra O’Leary, the court’s president, stressed that it would be up to governments to decide how to approach climate change obligations.

Lawyers for all three cases decided on Tuesday had hoped the Strasbourg court would find that national governments have a legal duty to make sure global warming is held to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

As part of meeting those goals, the European Union, which does not include Switzerland, currently has a target to be climate-neutral by 2050.

But activists have argued that many governments have not grasped the gravity of the problem — and are increasingly looking to the courts to force more action.

The Earth shattered global annual heat records in 2023, flirted with the world’s agreed-upon warming threshold, and showed more signs of a feverish planet, Copernicus, a European climate agency, said in January.

While many celebrated Tuesday’s decision, the mixed ruling left some confusion — and it could undermine a previous ruling in the Netherlands.

In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government to cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 from benchmark 1990 levels.

“The first ruling by an international human rights court on the inadequacy of states’ climate action leaves no doubt,” said Joie Chowdhury, senior attorney with the Centre for International Environmental Law, “the climate crisis is a human rights crisis.”

By Press Association

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