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Climate change on trial: all the countries taking their governments to court

Altstädter Kirchenplatz, Erlangen, Bavaria, Germany
Altstädter Kirchenplatz, Erlangen, Bavaria, Germany   -   Copyright  Markus Spiske
By Tim Gallagher

With climate policy high on the agenda and international accords like the Paris Agreement in play, environmental legislation isn’t exactly in short supply. But is it good enough?

It can be difficult for normal people’s voices to be heard over governments and corporations - yet normal people are most likely to suffer the consequences of climate change. Sometimes when policies aren't up to scratch regular citizens are forced into action.

One place their voices can be heard is in a courtroom and many citizens have already capitalised on this. In Europe, groups are taking governments and corporations to court to ensure that they are actively working towards meeting climate targets.

After the landmark ruling in the Netherlands (number three on the list) Johnny White of ClientEarth said, “It makes clear that compliance with national legislation and weak, hedged voluntary commitments cannot absolve a company of the risk of liability and court action.

“Critically, it confirmed the relevance of climate science, international climate law and business responsibility for human rights to corporate liability.

“These universal principles will be found in further corporate climate challenges across the world.”

Here is the definitive list of climate court cases, both pending and successful.

1 - Norway

Pending

This week it was announced Norwegian climate activists were taking their government to the European Court of Human Rights over their planned continuation of oil and gas exploration in the arctic.

The case, brought by six individuals all in their 20s and backed by Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth, argues that the fossil fuel drilling deprives young people of their future.

One activist is part of the Indigenous Sámi people, and says that climate change poses a particular threat to their way of life.

The complainants are taking their case to the ECHR after domestic courts ruled in favour of the government, which owns majority shares in Equinor, the fossil fuel firm which is planning to increase production of gas and oil over the next five years.

2 - UK

Pending

A legal challenge was announced against the UK government this year by climate activists who say public money is being used to subsidise the climate crisis.

Three activists supported by Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and UK Student Climate Network, want a legislative review of the UK’s oil and gas policy.

The groups argue that the policy is illegal because it fails to consider billions of pounds in tax breaks spent propping up the fossil fuel industry. They claim in 2020 Shell paid a negative $91.1 million (€82 million) in tax in the UK.

3 - Netherlands

Win!

Shell were ordered to reduce their carbon emissions by 45 per cent after a ruling against them in the lower court of the Hague this year.

After a case filed by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and other co-plaintiffs the company was ordered to make the changes by 2030. The case is unique in that policy change was sought rather than compensation.

Activists shed tears of joy outside court after the historic win against the purported biggest polluter in the Netherlands, however the ruling only applies in the territory itself.

4 - Portugal

Pending

This child-led climate case is heading for the European Court of Human Rights and was fast-tracked by the court due to its urgency.

The plaintiffs - aged between eight and 21 - argue that the effects of climate change affect their right to life.

In a challenge against 33 governments - all the EU countries plus Tukey, Ukraine, Switzerland, UK, Russia and Norway - the young people also argue that they are victims of discrimination based on their fate to suffer the consequences of climate change longer than their older counterparts.

Portugal is among the parts of southern Europe that will suffer the most from droughts, fires and damage to agriculture due to climate change.

5 - Ireland

Win!

This case, started by Friends of the Irish Environment, saw the Irish government taken to court over the inadequacy of their climate policy.

The ‘National Mitigation Plan’ was created in 2017 but activists claimed it violated Irish law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a unanimous decision ruling in favour of the activists, the seven judges of the Supreme Court ruled the plan “lacked the specificity to comply with the law” and told the government to “act now” to protect citizens from climate change.

6 - Poland

Pending

The Polish government will soon see five cases brought by citizens against them in regional courts over their “regressive” climate stance.

One such plaintiff is a business owner from Poland’s central region which suffers severe droughts.

The region has seen crop failures and disruption to travel, and business owner, Monika Stasiak, is afraid for the region and her son’s future.

7 - Belgium

Win!

Launched by environmental group Klimaatzaak, more than 58,000 citizens joined this lawsuit and the court ruled that they had a right to be heard.

On 17th June 2021, the government was found guilty of negligence in its policies to tackle the climate crisis. The court found that "by refraining from taking all necessary measures to prevent the effects of climate change detrimental to the lives" of the complainants, they had breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

But to the disappointment of campaigners, it decided not to impose binding emissions reduction targets on federal or regional governments.