2023 has been a watershed year in the climate justice movement. The number of climate justice cases in front of international courts and tribunals surged this year, and this is why.
This year saw youth from almost 100 countries across the Global South gather in Lebanon to co-create strategies and demands calling on decision-makers at COP28 and beyond to implement an equitable climate action framework. Soon after at the inaugural African climate summit, young people from across the continent demanded meaningful action to address the environmental challenges threatening their future.
Here is a summary of major updates, wins, pauses and losses from the climate change litigation world in 2023.
Swiss Senior Women at the European Court of Human Rights
The Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection (widely known as KlimaSeniorinnen) case is the first climate case ever heard at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It addresses the duties of Switzerland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more ambitiously to protect the lives of at-risk people. The decision (expected in 2024) will impact national climate policies and cases in Europe and beyond.
In the Swiss Senior Women’s own words, “To sue one’s own government is no ‘Sunday picnic’ and can only be done by those who can prove that they are particularly affected. And in this process, we have come a long way,” said Elisabeth Stern in her personal reflections on the significance of the case.
International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion (ICJAO)
The United Nations held a historic vote, led by the Vanuatu government, to determine whether the matter of climate crisis and human rights is referred to the International Court of Justice. On 29 March 2023, the resolution for an advisory opinion on the obligations of States with respect to climate change and human rights was adopted by 132 co-sponsoring countries at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). For the first time in history, the UNGA adopted a resolution to the ICJ by consensus. This was a result of a global alliance campaigning to get the highest court in the world (the International Court of Justice) to determine what duties countries have to protect the human rights of current and future generations from the climate crisis; and what should happen under international law when countries breach these legal duties.
Dutch citizens’ legal action against the Netherlands
Residents and Dutch citizens of the island of Bonaire, in the Caribbean, together with Greenpeace Netherlands, in May launched a legal action over the government’s failure to protect the Caribbean island against climate change impacts. Bonaire, a former Dutch colony, has been a special Dutch municipality since 2010. According to the seven individual plaintiffs, the state is negligent in protecting the people of Bonaire from climate change and violates their human rights. They demand that the Netherlands meet its fair share when it comes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and that the island of Bonaire is better protected against the impacts of climate change, while recognising the roots of the issues, such as colonialism.
#EniKnew – The call for corporate accountability
“ENI Knew”, a report by Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon revealed that the Italian oil and gas giant has known since the early 1970s about the damage caused by fossil fuels to the planet’s climate. This report follows a lawsuit filed by 12 Italian citizens, Greenpeace Italy, and ReCommon in May 2023 against the fossil fuel company for its contribution to global warming.
The claimants are asking the Court of Rome to declare ENI liable for past and potential future damages to fundamental rights, such as the right to health, safety, and property and for putting and continuing to put, in danger the same assets of the applicants because of the consequences of climate change.
Pacific Climate Justice Ship Tour
Throughout July and August, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior sailed from Vanuatu, to Tuvalu and Fiji as part of our Pacific Climate Justice Ship Tour. During the visit, Greenpeace Australia-Pacific campaigners met with community and government leaders to listen and engage in ‘talanoa’ or discussion, and to learn how best to support Pacific climate demands. They celebrated the beauty of culture and campaigned for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the impacts of climate change on human rights.
Korean constitutional complaint
On 20 September 2023, 167 South Koreans, backed by Greenpeace East Asia’s Seoul office, presented a petition at the Constitutional court for the declaration of unconstitutionality of Article 159(2) of the Capital Markets Act, for its lack of requirement of climate disclosure of business enterprises. They argued that the lack of mandatory climate disclosure results in companies picking and choosing what elements to report in their sustainability reports, leading to increased greenwashing. Unfortunately, in November 2023, the Constitutional Court ruled that the complaint should be rejected, but this is only opening another chapter of people-powered legal work as an answer.
Advisory opinion at the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
Greenpeace International attended the opening day of three weeks of hearings at the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany in September 2023. The Tribunal was requested by a coalition of Pacific states to advise on the obligations of states to protect the marine environment from GHG pollution. The hearings were significant because three international judicial courts and tribunals currently are working to prepare advisory opinions on climate change, and ITLOS is the first to receive submissions and hear arguments. Greenpeace and Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) submitted a written statement, circulated to the parties involved, on the obligations of States to phase-out fossil fuels.
Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 31 Other States
On 27 September 2023, the Duarte Agostinho and Others vs. Portugal and 31 Other countries’ case had its big moment with a public hearing in front of 17 judges at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Strasbourg, France. Six courageous Portuguese children and young adults brought this case against 32 European countries to the European court. These young people are asking the courts to legally compel countries to ramp up their efforts to cut emissions in line with holding global heating below 1.5°C.
The Climate Justice Walk
In the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan’s (locally known as Yolanda) historic landfall in the Philippines, 12 core Climate Walkers and supporters from a diverse coalition of climate and human rights advocates began their solidarity walk from Manila to Tacloban for the Climate Justice Walk 2023: A People’s Journey for Climate Justice.
The 1000-kilometre journey on foot and on bicycles culminated on 7 November 2023, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, with the Climate Walkers converging with local storm survivors and impacted communities as they crossed the iconic San Juanico bridge on their way to Tacloban. The walk was in support of the wave of climate litigation cases worldwide, including the Philippine Commission on Human Rights’ landmark inquiry. It also demanded that world governments intensify their ambition for the Global Stocktake, mobilise essential resources for the Loss and Damage Fund of the UNFCCC, and elevate the call for climate reparations.
Greenpeace Nordic and Natur og Ungdom v. The Norwegian State
Greenpeace Nordic and Natur og Ungdom (Young Friends of the Earth Norway) took the Norwegian state to court again in a new trial from 28 November to 6 December. The new climate lawsuit in Norway is part of the wider movement to hold states and corporations accountable for the climate and nature crises. The organisations argue that the recent approvals of three oil fields violate the Norwegian constitution and Norway’s international human rights commitments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They demand an immediate halt to the ongoing development of the oil fields.
Climate litigation victory in Belgium
After 9 years of procedure, a Belgian climate litigation case finally achieved a momentous victory. After a first symbolic win in 2021, where the judge held that the Belgium government breached its duty of care by failing to take necessary measures to prevent the harmful effects of climate change but did not rule on binding reduction targets, the Court of Appeal has now ruled in favour of such binding targets. The ruling of the Court of Appeal obliges the different governments in Belgium to collectively cut CO2 emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990.
UN Human Rights Prize
In December, The Global Coalition of Civil Society, Indigenous Peoples, Social Movements, and Local Communities for the Universal Recognition of the Human Right to a Clean, Healthy, and Sustainable Environment was awarded the 2023 UN Human Rights Prize, at a ceremony in New York, USA. Greenpeace is one of the members of the Global Coalition that comprises civil society, Indigenous Peoples, social movements, and local communities. The Right to Healthy Environment Coalition is calling for accountability from governments to ensure we live in a world with a safe climate, nontoxic environment, clean air, access to safe water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, and thriving biodiversity, now and for the future.
What next for climate justice?
2024 brings an opportunity for people most impacted by climate to tell their stories and leverage the power of the world’s courts. It is a global opportunity to shape and define government and corporate obligations to tackle the climate crisis and protect the rights of current and future generations. It is an opportunity to build collective and transformative power to fight toxic power led by those most impacted by the multiple crises today.
What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? NOW!
Safina Okumu is the Global Communications lead for the Climate Justice and Liability campaign.