The Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled Friday that the government must take urgent action on climate change to protect the fundamental rights of its people.
This decision came in a landmark case begun by the Dutch environmental group Urgenda in 2013, the first in the world to test whether citizens could use human rights law to force their governments to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
International human rights law obligates the Netherlands to reduce emissions, the court ruled, "because of the risk of a dangerous climate change that can also seriously affect the residents of the Netherlands in their right to life and well-being."
"Today, at a moment when people around the world are in need of real hope that governments will act with urgency to address the climate crisis, the Dutch Supreme Court has delivered a groundbreaking decision that confirms that individual governments must do their fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," an Urgenda spokesperson said after the ruling.
Rising sea levels are a serious threat to the Netherlands, one-quarter of which is on land that is already below sea level.
Urgenda had already won its case in two lower courts, and today’s ruling upholds a 2018 order that the Netherlands must slash emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 levels by the end of 2020 in order to protect “the life and family life of citizens.”
The Supreme Court ruled today that the 2018 Court of Appeal decision is "definitively upheld," and that the state has an obligation to "protect the residents of the Netherlands form the serious risk of climate change."
The Netherlands has already been working to reduce emissions, including shutting one of its five coal power plants by the end of 2019, but getting to the 25% target next year could require drastic action. The Dutch government recently estimated it was only on track to reduce emissions by about 20% next year.
The need for climate action has only grown more urgent since Urgenda first brought its case. Time is running out to avoid catastrophic warming, the United Nations said in a report last month, which found that to do so, the world must slash emissions by 7.5% each year for the next decade. Global climate talks over the last 30 years have failed to address the problem, and activists around the world are increasingly asking the courts to step in.
Friday’s ruling could have an impact far beyond the Netherlands. The Dutch court based its decision in part on the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that is binding in 47 states including Russia and Turkey. That could allow citizens of those countries to use the Dutch decision to argue that European law is on their side in cases against their own governments.
“Governments will have to consider even more seriously that they have legal obligations with regard to combating climate change — and that they don’t take action they might be sued and required by courts to take legal and policy measures,” commented Joana Setzer, research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
“The government has no discretion to violate human rights — it has a duty of care for climate change.”
Environmental lawyers also believe that a future case similar to Urgenda’s will eventually reach the top court created to enforce the Convention, the European Court of Human Rights, which has legal authority over every state that’s signed onto the treaty. When that happens, the Urgenda ruling will be a key precedent.
The Urgenda case has already had a global impact. At least a dozen similar cases have been filed in other countries in the past six years, including one in the United States still making its way through the courts. A few of these suits have produced significant victories. Judges in Pakistan and Colombia, for example, have ruled governments have an obligation to take climate action in order to protect their citizens’ fundamental rights.