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Green groups hail landmark ruling as Dutch Supreme Court mandates steep emission cuts

Marjan Minnesma (second from right), director of environment NGO Urgenda, holds a banner outside the Supreme Court prior to its ruling in the Urgenda case on December 20, 2019, in The Hague.
Marjan Minnesma (second from right), director of environment NGO Urgenda, holds a banner outside the Supreme Court prior to its ruling in the Urgenda case on December 20, 2019, in The Hague. Sem Van Der Wal, ANP, AFP
Text by: Henrique VALADARES
7 min

The Netherlands' Supreme Court upheld a ruling Friday requiring the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels within a year. Climate campaigners call the decision “an immense victory”.

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In a case that had been making its way through the Dutch courts for more than four years, the country’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled that under the European Convention on Human Rights the Netherlands must act “on account of the risk of dangerous climate change that could also have a serious impact on the rights to life and well-being of residents of the Netherlands”.

The decision upheld decisions by two lower courts against an appeal by Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government and was the final ruling in a case first brought by the climate group Urgenda in 2015.

“We are very, very glad, of course,” said Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda. “This is the third time we won and it is a final decision. I also think this gives us hope elsewhere in the world.”

“There is a breach of human rights in many places, where sometimes we feel it much more than in the Netherlands,” Minnesma told FRANCE 24.

“This is a landmark decision,” climate change expert Nigel Brook, of the law firm Clyde & Co, told Reuters. “Not least because of its legal basis: the principle that the government is required to protect the country's citizens against the dangers posed by climate change.”

Greenpeace called the decision “an immense victory for climate justice”.

A major polluter and vulnerable to climate change

The Netherlands, home to oil giant Shell an Europe’s largest port and abundant natural gas reserves, is one of Europe’s biggest polluters. The small but densely populated country has the fourth-highest CO2 emissions per capita in the European Union, according to the International Energy Agency, after financial hub Luxembourg, oil-burning Estonia and the heavily coal-dependent Czech Republic. Less than 7 percent of Dutch energy is produced by renewable sources.

The Netherlands is also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with nearly a third of the country lying below sea level.


A ruling without penalties

Reacting to the ruling on Friday, Rutte said his government would do everything possible to meet the 25 percent reduction goal in 2020 but did not specify how, acknowledging that it would be “complicated”.

“We have to close the remaining gap in a very short time,” Rutte said at his weekly press conference.

The Netherlands has already made some progress toward meeting the 25 percent target. A report by the country's Environmental Assessment Agency published in November estimated that Dutch greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 would be about 23 percent lower than 1990 levels. The agency said the reduction could range anywhere from 19 percent to 26 percent.

But Minnesma called those estimates “very, very, very optimistic”. Urgenda hopes the government will coordinate with the country’s largest companies and establish 50 urgent measures to meet the 25 percent goal and beyond. The group has published a detailed plan to achieve a 100 percent sustainable energy supply in the Netherlands by 2030 that it estimates could create 150,000 jobs.

The Supreme Court did not specify any penalty in its ruling if the government does not comply with Friday’s decision.

“We didn’t ask for a punishment, because we expect the government to respect the decision of the court,” said Dennis van Berkel, Urgenda’s lawyer in the case.

“That’s also what the government has said from the start, when we first won in 2015,” van Berkel told FRANCE 24. “We are talking about the highest court in the country. That is very strong. A government that ignores such a judgment goes completely against the rule of law.”

An international example?

Marie Toussaint, president of the French climate justice organisation Notre Affaire à Tous, is more wary.

“In France, on air pollution alone, environmental organisations and the courts have to call the state to order over and over,” she told FRANCE 24.

Still, the Dutch decision is “extremely important”, said Toussaint, who is spearheading a similar lawsuit in France along with three other organisations including Oxfam and Greenpeace, dubbed l’Affaire du Siècle (the Case of the Century).

“Now, constitutional courts in all countries party to the European Convention on Human Rights should be forced to adopt similar decisions,” she said.

In France, “we hope that the administrative tribunal will recognise that global warming leads to a violation of human rights”, said Toussaint of the Affaire du Siècle. The court is expected to rule on the case in 2020.

“In the event that the state does not respect this potential decision, we’ll return to the courts to claim reparations,” she added.

‘Clear path forward’

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was among those celebrating Friday’s decision.

“This landmark ruling provides a clear path forward for concerned individuals in Europe – and around the world – to undertake climate litigation in order to protect human rights, and I pay tribute to the civil society groups which initiated this action,” she said in a statement.

Comparable cases in other countries, though, suggest that the path for climate litigation may still be rocky. In late October, a German court dismissed a climate change lawsuit brought by three farming families against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. The Berlin court said the plaintiffs “lacked a legal basis for their complaint” and the families said earlier this month that they did not plan to appeal.

Still, European climate activists are gaining momentum as they test a variety of methods, both inside and outside the courts, to force government action on climate change. The Dutch decision came a day after Swiss authorities announced that environmental activists had collected enough signatures to force a referendum on setting specific climate targets in the Swiss constitution.

Minnesma, for her part, remains optimistic, saying: “If governments continue not to take responsibility, as they did at COP25 in Madrid, we will continue to force them to through the courts.”

This article was adapted by Colin Kinniburgh from the original in French.

(With AP)

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