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Urgenda Foundation v Netherlands: Historic climate change decision upheld

Publication December 2019

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands has ruled that the Netherlands Government must do more to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions on human rights grounds

On 20 December 2019, a 7-year legal process in the Netherlands concluded with the Supreme Court of the Netherlands upholding two previous decisions by lower courts, requiring the State of the Netherlands to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% compared with 1990 levels by the end of 2020.1

This case marks an historic development in international jurisprudence on climate change because it required a decision on an important question of legal process: whether a domestic court has the power to enforce compliance with international treaties against a national government.

In the landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that Dutch courts do have that power,2 and definitively upheld the 2018 Court of Appeal decision (see our previous update on this case here), which found that the state has a duty of care to protect its citizens from climate change in accordance with its obligations under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).3

In delivering the judgment last Friday, the Supreme Court also made the following significant statements about the certainty of climate science and the need for action by all states:

  • “Under the current circumstances, it is a fact that dangerous climate change will occur within several decades.  [Therefore,] a worldwide reduction of emissions is necessary in order to prevent irreversible climate change." 4
  • “All greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the total increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and not a single country, small or large, can hide behind the argument that their emissions alone will not determine whether dangerous climate change is to be averted.” 5

Although the decision of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands is not binding on courts in other countries, the principles in this case will add significantly to the current global legal and political pressure being applied by citizens on their governments to take urgent action on climate change. The judgment will carry particular weight in the EU as it is based in part on the ECHR. That treaty is binding in 47 states.

In a statement made on the same day as the Urgenda decision, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, commented on the implications of the case as follows: “This landmark ruling provides a clear path forward for concerned individuals in Europe — and around the world — to undertake climate litigation in order to protect human rights...”.

We will provide a wider update on developments in climate change litigation in early 2020.


Footnotes

1 Urgenda, at [7.1-7.6.2].

2 Urgenda, at [8.1-8.4].

3 Urgenda, at [5.2.1-5.7.1].

4 See also Urgenda, at [4.1-4.8].

5 See also Urgenda, at [5.7.2-5.8].



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