European Court rules climate inaction is a human rights violation

What’s happening? In a landmark decision, the European Court of Human Rights determined that Switzerland’s inadequate efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions constitute a violation of the human rights of over 2,000 older Swiss women, who argued their rights to privacy and family life were compromised due to heightened vulnerability to heatwaves. The ruling, the first of its kind on a climate change issue by the court, could catalyse a wave of similar cases globally, demanding stronger climate actions from governments. The court’s decision stresses the necessity of adherence to scientific guidelines in national climate policies and suggests that the judicial system can hold states accountable for environmental impacts on human rights. (The Guardian)  

Why does this matter? The European Court of Human Rights decision sends a clear and unprecedented message – governments and businesses may face significant legal repercussions if they fail to meet climate commitments. As climate change becomes a recognised cause for legal action, firms and governments are now under a judicial microscope. This could lead to an increase in litigation, where parties affected by climate inaction could hold governments and private entities liable.  

Past rulings – The decision is similar to the Dutch Supreme Court’s historic 2019 ruling ordering the government to cut greenhouse gases by a minimum of 25% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, underscoring that climate change is a human rights issue. It also resonates with the 2021 decision where a Belgian court recognised the violation of human rights due to inadequate climate policies. 

A growing trend – Since the European court’s decision, in South Korea, a groundbreaking legal challenge is set to be heard by the Constitutional Court on behalf of 62 babies and small children, arguing the government’s insufficient progress on climate goals. The case, initiated by parents and dubbed the “baby climate case”, exemplifies a growing global trend where courts are increasingly recognised as venues to enforce government accountability on climate action with India also following suit. These cases affirm governmental obligations to mitigate climate impacts and uphold citizens’ rights to a clean environment. Such litigation reflects widespread frustration with political inaction, pushing for judicial intervention to compel adherence to environmental commitments. 

Government accountability – As a result of these cases, governments must now scrutinise their policies, ensuring they are not only ambitious in their climate goals but also effective in implementation. Failure to do so risks legal challenges and the potential to incur costs associated with non-compliance. Whilst the outcomes and impacts of these cases are not yet clear, they will likely act to influence governments rather than punish them. In France, a court found the government responsible for exceeding emissions but only imposed a symbolic €1($1.06) fine to set a legal precedent. Similarly, Friends of the Earth in the UK successfully sued the government for its weak net-zero strategy, pressuring them into stronger climate action plans.  

Corporates beware – For businesses, the ruling implies a need to proactively adapt to the evolving legal landscape by integrating climate risk assessments into their strategies. This includes investing in sustainable technologies, reconsidering energy sources, and potentially re-evaluating their supply chains to avoid future liabilities. Companies that are slow to adapt may find themselves at a disadvantage, as consumers, investors, and other stakeholders increasingly favour entities with robust environmental credentials. Recently, fast-fashion brand Shein has come under scrutiny from various governments due to the company’s model which results in significant quantities of textile waste. Similarly, the Environment Agency fined over 30 companies £27m ($33.6m) for not adhering to climate change schemes aimed at ensuring the UK meets its 2050 net-zero emissions target. 


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