Do we have a human right to a healthy environment?

What’s happening? A climate lawsuit lodged by six Portuguese youth activists against 33 countries has been green-lighted and prioritised by the European Court of Human Rights in what could be a landmark case. Represented by nonprofit Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), the case argues that tougher climate action is needed to protect the youths’ physical and mental wellbeing, and their human rights to live freely without anxiety and without discrimination. It criticises governments for weak climate action and inadequate efforts to reduce emissions. The EU27 states, along with six non-EU nations, have been ordered to respond by 23 February.

Why does this matter? Climate change is increasingly being framed as a human rights issue in litigation as campaigners seek court support. A case by the Urgenda foundation that used this line of argument was successful in forcing government policy change – the Dutch government outlined measures to cut emissions, including a large reduction in coal use and other compliance measures totalling €3bn ($3.6bn), after the ruling.

If successful, the above case – filed in response to Portugal’s 2017 forest fires – may set an interesting precedent: that not adequately addressing climate change is a violation of European citizens’ human rights.

Such an outcome would put pressure on the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction goals, which are proposed to be raised to 55% below 1990 levels – GLAN is calling for this to be upped to 65%. Targets from the non-EU states involved, such as Russia, Turkey and Ukraine – all rated “critically insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker – could also be advanced as a result. The case also calls for each party to maintain and communicate their Paris Agreement climate pledges, or nationally determined contributions, which should be discussed every five years, to ensure each is held responsible for reaching the targets.

From a corporate perspective, policy changes from a governmental level will increase pressure on firms to decarbonise. It’s worth nothing similar legal action could perhaps be extended to target corporates not aligned with science-based commitments. If similar arguments are made in relation to violations of human rights, companies could face even greater repercussions.

Over 1,300 lawsuits have been filed since 1990 attempting to accelerate or address environmental action – district governments from Washington DCand Hoboken, for instance, have taken Shell and ExxonMobil among other firms to court over climate damage and misinformation. Elsewhere, campaigners are directing legal action at their leaders – the Australian government, for example, is being accused of misleading investors by not disclosing climate-related risks related to its government bonds.

Lateral thought from Curation – Addressing human rights could be an environmental solution itself. For example, the rights of Indigenous groups – for food, clean air, water and ecosystem services – have been eroded by economic development.

Ensuring these rights are upheld could prevent the expansion of polluting industries or those which threaten biodiversity. Reinstating ownership of land to local Indigenous groups, for example, has been proposed to stop deforestation and illegal logging in the Amazon.

Further reading:

EU pushes to remove fossil fuels under ECT protection, Curation
Global trends in climate change litigation: 2020 snapshot, LSE

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Katie Chan

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