Court rules Dutch government has duty to protect citizens’ rights in face of climate change. The Netherlands’ supreme court has upheld a ruling ordering the country’s government to do much more to cut carbon emissions, after a six-year fight for climate justice.
The court ruled that the government had explicit duties to protect its citizens’ human rights in the face of climate change and must reduce emissions by at least 25% compared with 1990 levels by the end of 2020.
The non-profit Urgenda Foundation, which brought the case, welcomed the “groundbreaking” judgment. The original judgment in 2015 was seen as a landmark in the then nascent field of climate litigation, and inspired similar cases across the world, from Pakistan to New Zealand.
David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said it was “the most important climate change court decision in the world so far, confirming that human rights are jeopardised by the climate emergency and that wealthy nations are legally obligated to achieve rapid and substantial emission reductions.”
The Dutch government had previously said it would comply with the substance of the ruling, but it repeatedly appealed over the legal basis for the decision. The latest national statistics show the Netherlands is very unlikely to meet the 2020 emissions target.
The Netherlands passed its first piece of national climate legislation in 2018, it has published a more ambitious carbon plan for 2030, and it is closing its first coal plant next year.
According to the supreme court, individual nations have direct obligations under articles 2 and 8 of the European convention on human rights, covering the right to life and the right to private and family life.
Dennis van Berkel, a member of the legal counsel for Urgenda, said: “The enormous importance of this case is not just that the Netherlands is obliged to act but that these principles are universal. No court outside the Netherlands is bound by this decision but the influence that this court has and the inspiration that it will give to others are really big.”
Van Berkel said that if the government did not comply with the ruling, Urgenda could start separate legal proceedings against it.
The Dutch climate minister, Eric Wiebes, said the government had “taken note” of decision and would issue a full response in January. He said the Netherlands had announced an “ambitious” set of measures this year to implement the judgment, although campaigners think it could go much further.
As well as inspiring cases against other national governments, Urgenda’s success has encouraged campaigners to take up legal arms against corporations. In April a group of social and environmental justice groups led by Friends of the Earth Netherlands began the process of suing the oil firm Shell, arguing that its business model threatens international climate goals and endangers human rights.
In a formal reply in November, Shell denied it was liable. A month earlier the company’s CEO said it had “no choice” but to invest in oil and claimed it was “entirely legitimate” to do so.
Nine de Pater, a climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Netherlands, said the supreme court decision set an important precedent for the Shell case because they used similar legal arguments. “It is a huge decision for all current climate litigation cases,” she said.