Friday, June 26, 2015

Danish Legal Victory Shows How the Courts Can Combat Climate Change

Precedent setting Danish legal decision forces the government to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.Government legislatures and corporate boardrooms may be the most logical places to lower GHG emissions. However, in some places lawmakers and board members are either corrupt (eg beholden to the oil industry) or ill informed (ie unaware of the science of climate change) and consequently they are not acting responsibly. In these cases legal challenges may open up additional fronts that effectively combat climate change. The courts have a legal duty to protect people from climate change if their elected officials and corporate entities fail to do so.

To stave off the worst impacts of global warming we must keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.4 Fahrenheit) threshold. To do this we must cut as much as 70 percent of our current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.

As we saw recently in Denmark, the courts are capable of mandating emissions reductions. On Wednesday June 24th a Dutch court ordered the government to slash GHGs. The civil case was filed by Urgenda, a non-government group comprised of 900 Dutch citizens. They argued that the emissions that cause climate change represent a real danger to the Danish people.

The Hague court presided by Judge Hans Hofhuis demanded that the Dutch government cut emissions by a minimum of 25 percent by 2020 using 1990 emissions levels as a baseline. Currently the country is set to achieve emissions reductions of 17 percent, although it is working towards meeting the European standard of 20 percent.

"The verdict is a milestone in the history of climate legislation, because it is the first time that a government was ordered to raise its climate ambition by a court," said Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe. "We hope this kind of legal action will be replicated in Europe and around the world."

Greenpeace proclaimed that "there is a new way to force action on climate change" and called the Dutch ruling "a game-changer in the fight against climate change."

"The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment," read a statement from the court. As far as Dutch companies are concerned the court said "climate policy can have a negative effect for one sector, but a positive effect for another."

To help others use the courts to fight climate change Urgenda is ready to share details of its case with activists in other countries. Bill Hare, senior scientist at Climate Analytics, a Berlin based nonprofit organization, said,  "(This) has the potential to become a precedent whose effect will ultimately flow through to undermining the markets for coal, oil and gas,"

With similar cases underway in Belgium and Norway, the Dutch decision may be the first of many. The ruling also has implications for other legal battles including efforts to seek a court injunction against oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic.

This bodes well for the forthcoming global climate negotiations (COP21) set for Paris at the end of the year. Legal actions are yet another weapon in the arsenal of environmentalists who are working to find ways of forcing irresponsible political leaderships to act on climate change.

The Danish legal decision shows how environmentalists can use the courts to more effectively prosecute the war against climate change.

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