Climate case: Dutch court confirms Urgenda's victory after appeal
On 24 June 2015, in an unprecedented ruling, the Dutch government was ordered to take more effective measures to fight against climate change. In a much-anticipated judgement on 9 October 2018, the appeals court confirmed this ruling.
In 2015, a Dutch court ruled in favour of an action by the environmental organisation Urgenda, supported by almost 900 citizens, aiming to force the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 (in comparison to 1990 levels).
The appeal judgement, coming just over three years later, did not leave any room for doubt: climate change must be taken seriously, and governments need to fulfil their responsibilities in this respect.
The appeals court in The Hague did not hesitate to examine the responsibility of the Dutch government vis-à-vis its obligations to protect human rights, more specifically the right to life (article 2 of the ECHR) and the right to respect for one's private and family life (article 8 ECHR). According to the court, as soon as the government is aware of the existence of a real and imminent danger, it must take as many preventative measures as possible to stop these rights being violated.
Based on scientific sources such as IPCC reports, the court concluded that it is necessary to maintain CO2 concentrations below the critical threshold of 450 ppm, namely at 430 ppm. Above this threshold, the danger is real and imminent, and requires concrete preventative measures from the state.
The court dismissed a number of points made by the state that are traditionally debated in matters of climate justice:
- It is in the interests of the organisation Urgenda to take action to protect the rights of the current generation because in its lifetime it will be subjected to the adverse effects of climate change.
- The government cannot hide behind other European obligations, notably those related to the emission trading scheme.
- In accordance with the precautionary principle sanctioned by international environmental law, the possible uncertainties around climate change cannot be used as a pretext for inaction.
- Another hobbyhorse: the causal link. The court repeated that in the case being looked at, which aimed to put an injunction on the government, the fact that there is a real and imminent danger, and measures need to be taken to counter this, are sufficient.
- The court rejected the argument that climate change is a global problem that cannot be resolved at the level of individual states. Accepting such an argument would in effect allow all states to not act, as they could claim that other states are not acting either.
- Regarding the particularly short timeframe within which the government needs to act to achieve the indicated objective, the court noted that in 2011 the government itself set a target of reducing emissions by 30%, thus proving it was already aware of the climate emergency. The Netherlands has profited from burning fossil fuels for a long time, and remains one of the highest contributors to emissions. So, it needs to take responsibility to address this.
- Finally, on the question of the separation of powers, the court unambiguously indicated that its decision only ties the government to the outcome, that is to say the objective to reduce emissions by at least 25%. The authorities maintain full freedom in terms of the measures they take to achieve this objective.
In resolute language, the appeals court in The Hague confirmed that, from now on, citizens can hold their governments responsible for inaction in the fight against climate change. Without doubt, this historic judgement paves the way for numerous similar climate cases across Europe.