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Victory in Dutch climate case and call for action by UN scientific report puts all laggard governments on notice: act now or see you in court!

COP21: Climate March in Amsterdam © Chantal Bekker / Greenpeace

People participate in the Global Climate March in Amsterdam on the day before the COP21 Paris talks begin. © Chantal Bekker / Greenpeace

If it ever feels like the road to solving the impacts of climate change is a slow, uphill battle, this news will change your mind.

In 2015, Dutch environmental group, Urgenda Foundation sued the state of Netherlands in a world-first victory of citizens holding their government accountable for climate change. The District Court of the Hague ruled that the Dutch government must reduce emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and as governments do, they appealed.

This month, the Hague Court of Appeal confirmed this ground-breaking decision meaning that the Dutch government MUST increase its climate ambition and reduce emissions to protect the rights of its citizens.

This is a big deal.

For the Netherlands, it means that all remaining coal fired power plants must be shut down before 2020 in order for the Dutch government to comply with the court order. Internationally, this ruling sets the stage for what’s to come – countries must prevent foreseeable violations of human rights resulting from climate change.

No doubt, this will have a beautiful “butterfly effect” on  global climate action. This is what we can expect:

Activists Block Entrance to RWE Coal Plant in Eemshaven © Bas Beentjes / Greenpeace

Greenpeace activists, block the entrance to a coal plant in Eemshaven, Netherlands. The coal ship ‘Paquis’ had plans to unload coal from Russia for the largest coal-fired power plant in the Netherlands. © Bas Beentjes / Greenpeace

Governments are “on notice” to increase climate ambition – or risk being sued

Urgenda’s victory in 2015 was the first time ever that a country’s government was held accountable for its contribution to dangerous climate change, and the fact that they won again on appeal means that countries who don’t actively prevent climate-related harms are violating people’s human rights.

Even better, the decision by the Court of Appeal was delivered the day after the release of a new UN climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which clearly laid out that the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C degrees of warming as a matter of survival for the countries most at risk from climate change. Even 1.5°C of warming could cause severe problems to vulnerable populations. With this report, governments have been put on notice that they must act now to increase their climate action and protect our human rights from the worsening impacts of climate change.

The combination of the Dutch ruling and the IPCC report is a warning to all governments. If countries fail to get their act together and update their climate and energy policies with the latest IPCC science, they too will be brought to court.

Projection at 48th IPCC Session Opening in Seoul © David Jaemin Byun / Greenpeace

Greenpeace activists project a laser beam message on Namsan mountain, Seoul on the occasion of the opening of the 48th IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Session in Songdo, Incheon, South Korea, © David Jaemin Byun / Greenpeace

Courts provide hope in safeguarding our future

The win by the Urgenda Foundation demonstrates the importance of having courts hold governments accountable on climate change. Despite the Netherlands arguing that matters of climate policy should be decided by politicians, not judges, the Court of Appeal strongly stated the importance of courts in holding States accountable for their human rights obligations – the Netherlands knew about the 2015 court ruling for the 25% carbon emissions cut, but has only cut its emissions by 13%

The role of courts in ensuring climate justice and respect of human rights was also highlighted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ comment on the 1.5C report:

“Human rights mechanisms have an essential role to play in protecting human rights by ensuring that States avoid taking measures that could accelerate climate change, and that they dedicate the maximum available resources to the adoption of measures that could mitigate climate change.”

In recent years, there’s been a wave of cases around the world of people standing up to fossil fuel companies, governments, or financial institutions and demanding their right to a healthy and safe environment. There’s the KlimaSeniorinnen, the 1000 plus senior women who are suing the Swiss government; youth organisations like Our Children’s Trust in the United States who have filed lawsuits against US states and the federal government over climate change; and right now the Commission of Human Rights in the Philippines is investigating 47 fossil fuel and cement companies for their contribution to human rights harms resulting from climate change.

Now, the victory by the Urgenda Foundation and the strong call for action by the scientific community means that going to court remains one of the best options for communities around the world.    

Senior Women for Climate Protection in St. Gallen © Greenpeace / Ex-Press / André Albrecht

Members of Senior Women For Climate Protection (Klimaseniorinnen) © Greenpeace / Ex-Press / André Albrecht

What will happen next?

Just as it did in 2015, the victory in the Netherlands will continue to have global repercussions. Except this time, it is preceded by the UN’s most important scientific report to date.

We are facing a moment of truth and how we act now will define the course of human history. But we are not alone. People power is unstoppable and their efforts to seek climate justice give us #ReasonsForHope.

Take action! Raise your voice for climate justice. Add your name and support communities seeking climate justice through legal actions.

Louise Fournier and Kristin Casper are litigation counsels for Greenpeace’s global climate justice and liability campaign