Dutch citizens take their government to court for being useless on climate change – And win!!

Yesterday the supreme court of the Netherlands came to a historic landmark verdict: the Dutch government’s lack of strong climate change action was branded illegal.

Organised by the climate campaign group Urgenda, 886 Dutch citizens sued their own government for failing to act in line with climate science, and therefore endangering lives. The Hague ruling used existing human rights laws and tort law – a form of common law that every country has, that refers to the basic duty to avoid causing harm.

Campaigners celebrate the landmark verdict. Image from Urgenda, not mine.

Campaigners celebrate the landmark verdict. Image from Urgenda, not mine.

The judges said that based on existing policies, the country is set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels) at the very most – which was deemed unacceptable considering the severe risks of global climate change, the country’s status as an advanced and affluent state, and the flat and low-lying geography of the country that poses a significant flooding risk.

Yesterday’s ruling has ordered the Dutch Government to instead reduce emissions by at least 25% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. The verdict is legally binding, so this isn’t just some no-strings recommendation or request. The government has the option to appeal the ruling – but they haven’t appealed a supreme court ruling before and the case has had so much international coverage it would probably be a PR nightmare.

The country relies largely on coal and gas for its energy needs, so the new target will require strong and swift action to move to more renewable sources of energy, extract less gas and improve energy efficiency.

There are so many exciting things about this news that I don’t even know where to start. First of all, I’m just surprised. The case was apparently started back in 2013, but I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was a plucky idea that could raise awareness of the issue. I did not think they would actually win the case!

The main reason I didn’t expect it to work, and why it’s so exciting that it did, is because of the power of the precedent. With law it all seems to be about whether there is a precedent. A ruling like this has not happened before, but now that it has, it can happen again. And that could actually be pretty soon. Groups of citizens are already planning similar cases in Belgium, Norway and the Philippines. As the Guardian has reported, some lawyers are saying this could potentially start a wave of climate litigation all around the world.

This is huge.

So far carbon emission reduction targets have been agreed by painfully slow and convoluted international negotiations. Reduction targets ordered by national courts on the basis of well established laws is something new.

And this isn’t because the Netherlands has some kind of super green and progressive environmental law that specifically forbids messing with the climate. As I’ve said, the ruling was based on human rights law and tort law – laws that pretty much everywhere has. It was framed as ‘knowingly causing serious harm to huge numbers of people in this country and also around the world’ basically. Which is exactly what climate inaction is, but traditionally it hasn’t been talked about in quite that way.

This means that we don’t necessarily need to wait for politicians to agree to new climate laws (although that’s still important) – as existing laws could be enough to render the status-quo illegal! Could the lawyers save the day?

I’ve seen some people online complaining that judges are not elected democratically and therefore have no right to dictate national policy. I have some sympathy for this point. I usually would object to unelected interests wielding such power. But the thing is, judges are only using laws that have been drawn up and passed by democratically elected governments. I don’t think anyone can seriously disagree with the  point that governments should not knowingly cause harm and should actively protect their citizens from harm. What people can and do seriously disagree with, however totally misguided and unfounded their objections, is the idea that carbon emissions will cause climate change and climate change threatens us with serious harm. To be honest these people cannot be allowed to put the future of humanity and the planet at risk just because they’re too deluded to accept the scientific consensus.

Above all else, this successful and historic case shows that progress can be made. We do need an internationally binding climate deal that is in line with the science, and we do need that deal to be agreed at the Paris Climate Summit this winter. But we don’t need to wait until we have a global deal to start making significant progress. I can see a combination of the fossil fuel divestment movement and climate litigations like this one causing a huge shift – and maybe even causing heads of state to make ambitious targets and deals that they wouldn’t otherwise of made.

This is people power.
And maybe, just maybe, we can finally get on with this properly and reach a cultural tipping point before we hit the biophysical one.


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