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Dutch Court Ruling on Human Rights Obligations to Halt Climate Case

Ruling an Important Step toward Climate Justice

A man walks past an inflatable Earth at the Adaptation Futures Climate Conference on May 11, 2016 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. © 2016 Michel Porro/Getty Images

An appeals court in the Netherlands yesterday upheld a ruling that the Dutch government needs to step up its efforts to fight climate change. The High Court of The Hague ordered the government to reduce carbon emissions by at least 25 percent by end-2020.

What makes the judgment stand out is the Court’s ruling that the government failed to fulfill its obligations related to the rights to life and private life set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In other words, the Dutch Court found that obligations to protect the human rights of the Dutch citizens require more ambitious climate targets.

The lawsuit was brought by Urgenda, a non-governmental group filing on behalf of Dutch citizens, arguing that the Dutch government wasn’t doing enough to protect them from climate change.

The Court has a strong scientific basis for its reasoning. Yesterday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report, warning of dramatic increases in heatwaves, droughts, floods, and sea level rise if temperatures rise more than 1.5 degree Celsius. The report warns that at current trends, the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold could be reached in 2040 and perhaps even earlier.

For the first time, the IPCC incorporated explicit human rights analysis. In reaction, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment called on countries, “particularly wealthy nations with high emissions – [to] act now to meet their human rights obligations.”

The recent IPCC report calls for significant emissions reductions – 45% from 2010 levels – by 2030 to avoid crossing the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold. One finding scientists agree on is the need for a dramatic decrease in coal energy.

Human rights violations can aggravate climate change. Human Rights Watch has denounced how the US Environmental Protection Agency is weakening rules that protect people who live near coal-fired plants. And in Lebanon pollution from the open burning of waste poses health risks to neighboring communities. Methane emissions from dumps worldwide contribute significantly to the climate problem.

Human rights law obliges states to take effective measures to protect human rights from environmental harm. Climate change is no exception. The Urgenda case in the Netherlands confirms as much.

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