German government ordered to protect future generations

Germany’s highest court has ordered its government to revise its climate change legislation by the end of the year, ruling that current targets do not sufficiently protect the rights of future generations. IF senior researcher, Melissa Bui, explains the importance of framing intergenerational fairness as a rights issue and urges other high courts to follow suit.

Intergenerational fairness

Although mentions of future generations in parliamentary debates have risen considerably over the past decade, it is still relatively uncommon for intergenerational fairness principles to appear in official political debates. It is even rarer for intergenerational fairness to feature centrally in court rulings against governments.

This is why the ruling against Germany’s climate legislation is so important. Last week, Germany’s supreme constitutional court ruled that the country’s current climate legislation violates the rights of future generations. The case was brought forward by young environmental activists, all of whom explained how they had first-hand experience of the consequences of climate change, ranging from heat waves to flooding. This “historic” ruling is an important step forward towards treating intergenerational fairness as a rights issue rather than a luxury, as it is too often framed.

Climate protection as a fundamental right

According to the court, younger and future generations are entitled to “fundamental rights to a human future”, however, current emissions’ targets outlined in the country’s Climate Protection Act are set too far in the future and therefore place a “radical burden” on future generations who would be forced to drastically reduce their freedoms in order to meet 2015 Paris Agreement targets.

The German court has ordered that climate targets need to be dragged forward and clearer plans to achieve them to be made, and has provided the end of next year as the deadline for these changes. Failing to do so would be a serious violation of the rights of future generations, according to the court. The ruling emphasised that “virtually every freedom is potentially affected by these future emission reduction obligations because almost every area of human life is associated with the emission of greenhouse gases and is therefore threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030.”

This is a refreshing divergence from previous discourses which often ignore the rights of current younger generations. The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us of this reality in the UK. IF has previously written about how 2020 was a new low for intergenerational fairness. Examples include: the A-level algorithm scandal; locking up university students in their accommodation; and allegations of the unlawful allocation of COVID-19 funds (including £108 million to a pest control company and £250 million to a jewellery company).

A framework for intergenerational fairness

Of course, targets would be meaningless without proper delivery. In the UK, environmental activists and groups have been reluctant to praise the government’s radical promise to reduce carbon emissions by 78%  by 2035 due to its poor track record with meeting targets and providing clear plans on how the road to achieving them would be funded.

Nevertheless, if the ruling in Germany is successful, it could serve as an important framework that can be used by young people in other countries to bring similar cases forward against their governments. The German government is not the only nation projected to miss their climate obligations. It was recently revealed that many rich nations such as the United States and China are also forecasted to miss the Paris Agreement target due to insufficient climate policies.

Climate protection is also not the only area in which this framework can apply. Policies in other areas such as housing, education and government spending, also have the potential to infringe on the rights of future generations. It is possible that this could open the door to fairer treatment of the freedoms of future generations in all kinds of policy areas.

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