Dutch government taken to court over insufficient climate change action

Signal of change / Dutch government taken to court over insufficient climate change action

By Laura Picot / 27 Apr 2015

An update to this signal has been submitted here: Dutch government ordered to cut carbon emissions in landmark ruling

Dutch environmental group The Urgenda Foundation has filed a class action lawsuit against the government on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens for taking insufficient measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. This landmark case is the first in the world to use tort law and human rights law as a basis for pursuing climate action, according to Urgenda. It is the first European case in which citizens attempt to hold a state responsible for inaction – climate change cases have been attempted in the United States without success.

Case proceedings were initiated in November 2012, following which Dutch citizens were recruited as co-plaintiffs. The first public hearings took place on 14 April before the district court in The Hague, and a verdict will be reached on 24 June. In the case, Urgenda requests the court to declare that global warming of more than 2°C will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide and that the Dutch State is acting unlawfully by not contributing its part to prevent global warming. They want the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020, relative to 1990 levels. 

The issues of climate change and rising sea levels are very important for the Netherlands, where nearly 25% of the country's land lies and 60% of its GDP is produced below sea-level. Despite this, according to the International Energy Agency, they rank poorly compared to the rest of the European Union for renewable energy sources, sourcing only 4% of electricity from renewables, and last year opened three new coal-fired power plants.

Urgenda claim that: “The Dutch Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that the government can be held legally accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm. Urgenda argues that this is also the case with climate change.” They believe that preventing dangerous climate change goes beyond a moral responsibility to a legal obligation. Marjan Minnesma, Urgenda Co-Founder and Director, admitted to RTCC that 10 years ago the organisation would not have attempted this action, but believes that it is now possible for a ruling to be acheived due to increased climate change awareness.

Image credit: Urgenda / Chantal Bekker

So what?

James Arrandale of Client Earth, an environmental law firm, said “it would be groundbreaking for Urgenda to win," and would lead to similar cases in other countries. He believes the key is to demonstrate that states have a legal obligation already to reduce greenhouse gas emission, regardless of what is agreed in UN climate talks.

Roger Cox, legal advisor to Urgenda, believes that international climate change treaties have done little to effect climate change action and that legal action is needed to create change. He is convinced that have a “good chance of winning” and that the case will set a precedent for the requirement of governments in other countries under human rights law to protect their citizens from the effects of climate change. This is already happening in Belgium, where the recently established non-profit group Klimaatzaak is preparing a case against its own government and has received the support of over 10,000 citizens so far.

Moreover, on 30 March 2015 the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations were published by a group on international legal experts. They hold that governments are legally obligated to avert the harmful effects of climate change, based on international human rights law, environmental law and tort law, regardless of any pre-existing international agreements. The Principles, which constitute a template rather than a legal protocol, have gained high-profile support, such as that of Jaap Spier, Advocate-General to the Dutch Supreme Court. “Courts can force countries to adopt effective climate policies. Court cases are perhaps the only way to break through the political apathy about climate change,” he said in an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw.


Urgenda (2015, April) The Urgenda climate case against the Dutch government

New Scientist (2015, 14 April) Dutch government taken to court over climate change

The Guardian (2015, 14 April) Dutch government facing legal action over failure to reduce carbon emissions

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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