On 18 October 2016, with the backing of a wide coalition, Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth Norway filed a historic legal case against the Norwegian government, challenging the granting of new oil drilling licenses in a newly opened area for the first time in 20 years.
Judgment by the Oslo District Court in 2018
On 4 January 2018, the Oslo District Court found the Norwegian government not responsible for breaching the Constitution. In particular, the court stated that the Norwegian State was not responsible for the carbon emissions connected to the burning of Norwegian oil and gas outside of Norway. However, the Court did affirm that the right to a healthy environment is protected by the Constitution and that the Government must uphold this right.
The organisations stated on the day of the judgment:
«We have shown that the Norwegian Constitution grants future generations the right to a safe and healthy environment. We see this as an important step for stronger protection of the environment, which can serve as inspiration for youth all around the world.»
On 5 February 2018, the organisations appealed the judgment with the aim of taking the legal dispute directly to the Supreme Court of Norway. Instead, the organisations were referred to the Court of Appeal in Oslo, where the case was once again heard in November 2019.
In the appeal, the organisations stood by the argument that Norway is indeed responsible for the emissions caused by the oil and gas it exports, in addition to its territorial emissions, and that this must be taken into account by the court. This argument was supported by recent research showing the positive effects that curbing fossil fuel extraction has on the climate, as well as research on the slim remains of the carbon budget left before overshooting the 1.5 emissions target set out in the Paris Agreement.
Judgment by the Court of Appeal in 2020
On 22 January 2020, the Court of Appeal found that the Norwegian State did not breach the Constitutional right to a healthy environment. However, the Court again affirmed that this right is protected and that the government must safeguard it for current and future generations. Importantly, the Court of Appeal also held that in establishing whether the government is protecting this right, all GHG emissions from Norwegian oil, even if exported abroad, must be taken into account.
The Court of Appeal found that the harm caused by the Arctic oil permits was uncertain, and could not yet be considered great enough to constitute a violation of the Constitution; further, the court held that the state was taking sufficient climate action to remedy any damage. Despite this, the judgment represented a significant step closer to victory. The most important aspect of the judgment was the Court’s finding that Norway is indeed responsible for emissions from Norwegian-produced oil that is burned in other countries.
The organisations stated on the day of the judgment:
«This is a big step closer to guaranteeing our future and sending a message that we can’t afford to drill for new oil. The Norwegian Court of Appeal affirms the constitutional right to a healthy environment and finds that the Norwegian government could be responsible for emissions made by Norwegian oil burned abroad.
Still, the Court finds that the threshold for invalidating the oil drilling licences has not yet been breached. The co-plaintiffs will appeal the judgment to the Supreme Court, as it is clear that this necessitates further review by the judiciary.»
Appeal to the Supreme Court
On 23 February 2020, the organisations appealed the judgment to the Supreme Court of Norway, and on 23 April 2020, the Supreme Court accepted The People vs. Arctic Oil climate case, with arguments to be heard from 4 November until 12 November of the same year.
The case was heard in plenary, with all 19 judges of the Supreme Court present. This only happens in highly significant cases. The Supreme Court also decided to award the plaintiffs free legal costs, which also only happens rarely and in especially important cases. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing was held digitally.
The arguments from the Court of Appeal were presented in the Supreme Court as well, while further emphasizing the violations to the European Convention on Human Rights Article 2 (right to life) and Article 8 (right to private and family life) caused by the permitted drilling in the Arctic.
Judgment by the Supreme Court in 2020
On 22 December 2020, the Supreme Court of Norway found that the Norwegian State did not violate the Constitutional right to a healthy environment. Four of the 15 judges dissented, deeming the oil licenses invalid due to procedural errors that had affected the decision to open up for oil drilling, and pointing out that possible future global emissions of greenhouse gases were not considered in the underlying impact assessment.
«It is absurd that our right to a livable environment cannot be used to stop Norway’s most harmful activities for our climate and environment. We share in the outrage the youth of Norway will feel faced with this decision. It is a disappointment but we are not deterred. We will now consider all possibilities to stop this harmful industry, including an application to the European Court of Human Rights», said Frode Pleym, head of Greenpeace Norway on the day of the judgment.