In a landmark decision issued today, Germany’s top court found lawmakers have a human rights obligation to protect people from the effects of climate change. The court ruled that a German 2019 climate change law does not adequately regulate greenhouse gas emission reduction goals from 2030 onwards, and so violates the government’s obligation to protect the human rights of the young people who brought the case.
Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and other climate-related disasters have increased in Europe in recent years and will get much worse if governments do not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study on health and climate change published in The Lancet found that Germany, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, is also among countries where many older people have died as a result of climate-related heatwaves. In 2018 more than 20,000 deaths of people over 65 years old were attributed to heat in Germany, ranking third after China and India.
The nine young people between the ages of 15 and 32 who brought the case are concerned about the impacts the climate crisis is having on their rights, now and in the future. The applicants, some of whom live on German islands increasingly affected by flooding, join a broader movement of youth activists around the world using street protests, online activism, and lawsuits to call out government inaction on climate change.
One of the challenges faced by young climate activists trying to hold their governments to account for the lack of ambitious climate action is that the worst impacts of climate change are yet to come. The decision by the German Constitutional Court should help to address this concern. The court found that Germany is required to set emission reduction targets post 2030 for the country to meet commitments under the Paris Agreement, because failing to do so “would irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens” onto future generations. The plaintiffs, NGOs supporting the case, and youth climate activists are applauding the decision as a confirmation that ambitious climate action is a human rights imperative.
The government now has until the end of next year to fix its 2019 climate change law. Today’s decision made it clear that there is no time to lose to meet the obligation to protect the human rights of young people and future generations.