European court hands down mixed rulings on climate goal cases

9 April 2024, 11:14

Europe Climate Lawsuits
Europe Climate Lawsuits. Picture: PA

Although activists have had success with lawsuits in domestic proceedings, this was the first time an international court has ruled on climate change.

Europe’s highest human rights court has thrown out cases brought by six Portuguese youths and a French mayor aimed at forcing countries to meet international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the European Court of Human Rights sided with a group of senior Swiss women who also sought such measures.

Lawyers for all three had hoped the Strasbourg court will 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.

But Judge Siofra O’Leary, the president of the European Court of Human Rights, came down with mixed judgments.

“I really hoped that we would win against all the countries, so obviously I’m disappointed that this didn’t happen,” said 19-year-od Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese plaintiffs.

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

In a reference to its fundamental Convention of Human Rights, “the court found that Article 8 of the Convention encompasses a right for individuals to effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life”.

Judgments from the European Court of Human Rights are not legally binding for all 46 of the European Council’s member states, but they set a legal precedent against which future lawsuits would be judged.

Although activists have had successes with lawsuits in domestic proceedings, this was the first time an international court has ruled on climate change.

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

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

She said Tuesday’s decision confirms for the first time that countries have an obligation to protect people from the effects of climate change and will open the door to more legal challenges.

Ahead of the ruling, a large crowd gathered in front of the court building to cheer and wave flags, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was coming off of multiple arrests during a demonstration in The Hague over the weekend.

The decisions have “the potential to be a watershed moment in the global fight for a livable future. A victory for any of the three cases would be one of the most significant developments on climate change since the signing of the Paris Agreement” said Gerry Liston, a lawyer with the Global Legal Action Network, which is supporting the Portuguese students.

The European Union, which does not include Switzerland, currently has a target to be climate-neutral by 2050. Many governments have said that meeting a 2030 goal would be economically unattainable.

The groups were confident that the 17 judges will rule in their favour, but the mixed decision 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 Urgenda decision, referring to the climate group that brought the case, relied on the European Convention of Human Rights. It could be overturned if Tuesday’s decision concludes there is no legal obligation for countries to combat climate change.

“A court ruling is binding on all countries,” said Dennis van Berkel, who represented Urgenda in the Netherlands.

Europe Climate Lawsuits
President of the European Court of Human Rights Siofra O’Leary (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

Such considerations were not predominantly on the mind of 16-year-old Andre dos Santos Oliveira of Portugal.

“The extreme heat waves, the rainfalls, followed by heat waves, it is just choking us with greenhouse effects. And what worries me is the frequency in which they started happening more and more. That’s what really scared me. And, I thought to myself, well, what can I do?” she said.

Together with five more young people, 16-year-old André dos Santos Oliveira took Portugal and 32 other nations to court, arguing the failure to stop emissions violated their fundamental rights. Their case was thrown out.

“The extreme heat waves, the rainfalls, followed by heat waves, it is just choking us with greenhouse effects. And what worries me is the frequency in which they started happening more and more. That’s what really scared me. And, I thought to myself, well, what can I do?” she said.

But judges ruled in favour of a group of Swiss retirees also demanding their government do more.

Senior Women for Climate Protection, whose average age is 74, say older women’s rights are especially infringed on because they are most affected by the extreme heat that will become more frequent due to global warming.

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.

In all three cases, lawyers argued that the political and civil protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights are meaningless if the planet is uninhabitable.

The countries facing the legal challenges hope the cases will be dismissed. They say the blame for climate change cannot rest with any individual country.

Switzerland is not alone in being affected by global warming, said Alain Chablais, representative of the country at last year’s hearings. “This problem cannot be solved by Switzerland alone.”

Acknowledging the urgency of the climate crisis, the court fast-tracked all three cases, including a rare move allowing the Portuguese case to bypass domestic legal proceedings.

By Press Association

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