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Climate Change before the Courts: Urgenda Ruling Redraws the Boundary between Law and Politics

Published on November 16, 2018        Author: 
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On the 9th of October, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the first-instance judgment in the Urgenda case, ordering the Dutch State to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more progressively than planned by the government. The appeal judgment was applauded across the world and welcomed as a source of inspiration for climate change litigation in other jurisdictions. At the same time, the ruling has evoked criticism in the Netherlands, where commentators wondered if the court had not overstepped the boundary between law and politics, violating the separation of powers (eg in Dutch here, here, and here). The ruling raises intricate questions concerning the proper role of domestic courts in securing compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in matters of general policy. Arguably, the judgment expands the role of courts beyond what Dutch constitutional law allows them to do, but this expansion fits with the increasing emphasis put on the notion of subsidiarity by the Member States of the Council of Europe.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Human Rights

The Court of Appeal confirmed that by 2020, the Dutch government should have reduced the cumulative volume of greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 % compared to the situation in 1990. The government had agreed to a 49 % reduction target for 2030 and a 80-95 % target for 2050 (para 46), but disputed that it was legally obliged to commit to a reduction target of at least 25 % for 2020, in light of the EU’s commitment of 20 %. The appeal court agreed with Urgenda that a reduction of 20 % by 2020 would not be sufficient to meet the 2030 target and that reduction efforts should not be delayed (para 47).

According to the court, the State’s refusal to commit to at least 25 % breached its duty of care under Articles 2 and 8 of the ECHR. In interpreting these Articles, the court ruled that ‘the State has a positive obligation to protect the lives of citizens within its jurisdiction under Article 2 ECHR, while Article 8 ECHR creates the obligation to protect the right to home and private life’ (para 43). The court noted ‘a real threat of dangerous climate change, resulting in the serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption of family life’ (para 45). In this context, the State’s duty of care required a reduction of at least 25 % (para 73). Read the rest of this entry…