Dutch people vs climate change

In December 2019, after almost six years of battling between the Dutch state and its citizenry, the Netherlands’ highest court ruled for the plaintiffs (the Urgenda Foundation and 886 citizens), stating that the Dutch government must reduce its emissions in line with its human rights obligations. Cameron Leitch explains the importance of this case in climate litigation

Whilst this case may not have scaled the heights of the British media, the impact that it has had has been global. The ground-breaking ruling means that the Dutch government has a legal duty to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 25% by the end of this year (2020), in line with levels from 1990.

Taking the legal route 

It has been long journey to reach this historic ruling but, for the plaintiffs, it has been a rewarding one.

The Dutch citizens – along with citizens all over the globe – are fervent in their pursuits to stop climate change and prevent some of its potentially disastrous consequences. Recent events in Australia are a case-in-point as scientists argue that climate change has intensified the bush fire season; the severity and subsequent destruction of the fires have been unprecedented.

The Dutch government has been lambasted by some of its citizens for failing to produce sufficient action in response to the emerging climate change threat. Although the government has not shied away from recognising its inefficiencies, by doing so, it has also demonstrated that it has been exposing its own citizens to danger, which in legal terms, is “a wrongful act of the state”.

As a result, the Urgenda Foundation along with its co-plaintiffs initiated a court case on the grounds that climate change emerged from an area of policy where the government could be held legally accountable for failing “to take sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm.”

Recognising but rejecting

Initially, in a legal battle spanning just under two years, the District Court of The Hague in June 2015 ruled in favour of Urgenda and its co-plaintiffs, ordering the Dutch state to lower its emissions by the 25% (as mentioned above).

However, in the September of 2015, the state – despite advice on the contrary from its citizenry and leading scientists – chose to appeal the verdict. The Dutch state in defence argued that it should not be legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that whilst it understood the harm that rising greenhouse emissions could and would cause if not ameliorated, the level to which they should be reduced should reside within the political realm.

In the October of 2018 – over three years from when the state first submitted its appeal – the Court of Appeal of The Hague once again ruled in favour of Urgenda and the co-plaintiffs, upholding the 2015 decision.

Despite a second victory, the state once again appealed, this time to the Supreme Court (the highest court in the Netherlands). And just over a month ago, in December 2019, the Supreme Court provided its final judgement, ruling once again in favour of Urgenda, and ordering that the Dutch government had a human rights obligation to reduce its emissions.

The court case may have lasted a gruelling six years in all, but its ruling was historic: it was the first time a government had been legally ordered to tackle climate change.

An impactful precedent 

Although the realm of climate litigation within science and academia is relatively unexplored, leading thinkers have provided some interesting insights into the impacts of the Urgenda Campaign, which (in a list that is certainly not exhaustive) include:

Inspired climate litigation cases across the globe. As a result of the ruling in 2015, momentum has built and new cases of climate litigation have emerged spanning several continents from the Americas to Africa to Europe. The success of these cases has been varied, but most are still ongoing.

Climate litigation influencing public policy outcomes. The Urgenda case – as already alluded to – has mandated that the Dutch government reduce greenhouse gases by 25%. Climate litigation cases more broadly are also fighting to establish ambitious targets for governments to reach, or to reinforce existing legislation. Unfortunately, a more nuanced understanding of the influence of such cases on public policy (because of their recentness) has not yet been possible. However, climate litigation will most likely remain a useful tool in attempting to influence public policy in the near future.

Changing the public perception of climate change. The Urgenda case sets a precedent from which other initiatives can follow. As Roger Cox (lead counsel in representing the Urgenda Foundation) argues, 30 years ago no one would have believed that smoking in cafés or public buildings would be banned. But after several court rulings outlawing the behaviour, public opinion on smoking was eventually altered. In a similar vein, it is hoped that such cases of climate litigation can have similarly profound effect.

Ultimately, the Urgenda Foundation vs the State of the Netherlands is a landmark ruling which has had a transcontinental reach, inspiring similar legal court cases in various countries. In a world where some argue that the general population has little power, perhaps climate litigation has handed to the citizenry a powerful tool by which it can attempt to hold governments to account beyond the moral and political realms, and even to influence public policy.


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