Words: Femke Widjekop (December 2016)
Image Credits: Femke Widjekop
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Decision: 2015 Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch Government

Timing: 24 June 2015

Positive impact: Dutch citizens successfully held their government accountable for contributing to climate change.

Together with 886 citizens, Dutch NGO Urgenda brought a climate liability case against the Dutch State. I joined this case two years ago as one of the co-plaintiffs. Our argument was that the Dutch state was neglecting its duty of care towards us, its current and future citizens, by not reducing CO2 emissions quickly enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. We asked the judges to order the Dutch State to reduce its CO2 emissions by 25-40% by 2020, the percentage range that science and international agreements tell us is needed if we want to stay below the 2 degree global warming threshold.

24 June 2015 was ‘judgement day’. What I heard in the Hague district courtroom that day exceeded my hopes and expectations. In a groundbreaking verdict, the judges agreed fully with the arguments presented by us and stated that the Dutch state has a duty of care, under Dutch tort law, to reduce its C02 emission to 25% by 2020 (the judges chose the minimum percentage amount so as not to overly infringe the discretionary power of the Dutch government to make climate policy). The court ruled that Urgenda had standing and that the State had acted unlawfully towards it, and the 886 citizens it represented, under national tort law.

The court used European human rights standards, such as Article 2 and 8 of the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR), the precautionary principle, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the treaty of the European Union to interpret the ‘equity’ principle of the Dutch tort article (Article 6:162 Civil Code) and concluded the Dutch state was liable in negligence towards Urgenda. The argument of the State’s lawyers, that climate policy is a matter of discretion for the executive power, was brushed aside when the court had regard to the protective logic of the rule of law and separation of powers. That is, the judiciary’s rightful place is to offer its citizens protection when the executive exercises its power in such a way that endangers the wellbeing and human rights of its citizens. This includes the negligence of a government refusing to take timely climate action.

We, co-litigants, and the lawyers acting on behalf of Urgenda were amazed by the boldness of the court. I personally was deeply touched that something really seems to be changing in the world when a court which could have easily have hidden behind all of the contrary arguments availlable to it (for example, ‘the discretionary power of the executive to determine climate policy’;  ‘the relative small contribution of the Netherlands to the global emission problem, thus refusing to establish proportionate liability’ or ‘the lack of a strong enough causal link between the actions of the Dutch state and the future damage caused by climate change’) not to mention simply refusing to grant Urgenda standing, was able to make a bold decision to take responsibility for its duty to acknowledge scientific facts, apply the law and do justice in this matter of extreme societal importance.

dutch-climate-activists

For me, it was a moment in which my idealism touched ground and merged with the hopes of the other  one hundred co-litigants present in the room, (some of which held hands and many shed tears, like I did), hopes which were confirmed and ‘mirrored’ by the words of the judge who agreed with our most important grievances and demands. Such was the surprise that Urgenda’s lawyers had to pull themselves together afterwards, overcome with emotion and relief. TV news images later showed their teary faces and yet none of them really tried to hide their tears: they were proud to admit that they had put their whole heart into this case in what they described as ‘the case of their lifetimes’. I cannot help but think that some of this wholeheartedness rubbed off on the judges in this courageous judgement.

The Dutch Climate Case victory has encouraged citizens in many other countries to seek climate justice through litigation. In Belgium and France, climate cases are being prepared. In Pakistan, the high court of justice in Lahore in October 2015 ordered the creation of a “climate council” to force the Pakistani state to uphold its environmental commitments. In the United States, a Washington judge ruled that the state has a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people. The Phillippine Commission on Human Rights is currently investigating if 47 ‘carbon majors’, among whom Shell, BP and Chevron, through their greenhouse gas emissions are violating human rights to life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and self-determination.

And while the Dutch government did appeal the Climate Case-verdict, the Dutch Parliament recently passed a non-binding motion to reduce CO2-emissions by 25% in 2020 and by 55% in 2030. With the upcoming elections in the first half of 2017, it is unclear if the current government will start executing this motion. It is good to know that, regardless of the 2017 election outcomes, climate policy no longer exclusively belongs to the domain of politics. It has become a question of jurisprudence as well.

UPDATE 9 October 2018: Urgenda wins appeal in historic climate case

The Hague Court of Appeal upheld the groundbreaking 2015 decision of the District Court, in which it ordered the Dutch Government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. The Court ruled that failure to do so would amount to a violation of the rights of Dutch citizens. Read more here.

FEMKE WIJDEKOP is a Legal Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Security and a Senior Expert in environmental justice at IUCN Netherlands. Previously, she worked as a researcher in the fields of international and constitutional law at the University of Amsterdam. For the past several years, she has been campaigning with End Ecocide in Europe to make ecocide the fifth crime against peace. (The first part of this article was originally published on the website of the Project for Spiritually, Law and Politics (PISLAP)

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