2023 proved to be a very promising year for climate litigation, as courts globally witnessed the presentation of evidence and arguments during groundbreaking trials and hearings. Momentous rulings observed substantial advancements in holding governments accountable for their inaction or denial concerning the climate crisis. Furthermore, there was no shortage of fresh climate cases being filed, further reinforcing the pivotal role courts play in delivering climate justice and ensuring accountability.
The sheer magnitude of climate lawsuits globally, nearing an astounding 2,500, leaves no room for doubt: courts have emerged as a crucial platform for seeking justice and addressing the urgent need for climate accountability.
Here are some of this year’s highlights for Europe.
As the much-anticipated COP28 was unfolding in Dubai on November 30, Belgium experienced a significant legal victory. An appeals court issued a landmark ruling in a human rights lawsuit filed by a group of Belgian citizens against the national government and regional jurisdictions. The court mandated that the Belgian government must slash carbon emissions by at least 55 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. This crucial judgment marks only the second instance where a court has imposed a binding emissions reduction target on a country, with the first being the historic Urgenda ruling in the Netherlands back in 2015.
This recent decision follows a 2021 ruling in the same case, where the court found that the governments had violated their legal obligations under both Belgian civil law and European human rights law by failing to protect citizens from the perils of climate change.
Lucy Maxwell, co-director of the Urgenda Foundation's Climate Litigation Network, marked the significance of this development, stressing that it is only the third time any court has compelled a government to bridge the gap between its inadequate greenhouse gas targets and what science unequivocally demands. In a similar vein, Germany's highest court ordered the government to revise its national climate law in 2021, deeming it insufficiently protective of youth and future generations.
Meanwhile, in Norway, a climate lawsuit trial commenced during the same week as the Belgian ruling. Greenpeace Nordic and Young Friends of the Earth Norway challenged the Norwegian government's approval of three new North Sea oil fields, building upon a prior legal challenge to Norway's licensing of offshore oil and gas development. This case carries additional weight due to statements from expert sources, including the International Energy Agency, which underline that new fossil fuel projects are incompatible with the objective of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Nikki Reisch, director of the Climate and Energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law, emphasized the importance of this Norwegian case, stating that it joins the growing wave of litigation worldwide that questions the expansion of fossil fuels amidst increasing climate upheaval. It serves as a reminder that governments have preexisting legal obligations and will be held accountable to them in a court of law.
Human Rights and Accountability make headway through Legal Proceedings
As the devastating impacts of climate change grow more obvious, severe and urgent, courts are becoming battlegrounds for cases that assert inadequate government climate policies as human rights violations. This trend is particularly notable in Europe, where significant legal developments in 2023 have brought these issues into sharp focus.
A groundbreaking event took place at the European Court of Human Rights, as it convened hearings for the first time to address lawsuits challenging governments' insufficient climate responses on human rights grounds. All three cases presented before the court share a common goal: compelling governments to align their climate policies with scientific evidence to protect and preserve human rights. This comes as a relief to climate concerned individuals after extremely controversial statements by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber claiming that there is no scientific evidence that fossil fuel phase-out is needed to reach the 1.5C goal.
In late March, the court heard two important climate cases. The first, KlimaSeniorinnen v. Switzerland, was brought forward by a group of elderly Swiss women who are particularly vulnerable to the worsening health impacts of extreme heat. The second, Carême v. France, was filed by a French citizen and former mayor of a coastal village in northern France, which is at high risk of heavy flooding.
In a truly historic hearing held in September, the Human Rights Court took on a third climate case. Six young people from Portugal-with the younger one being 11 years old- brought a lawsuit against 32 European countries, marking the first instance in which so many national governments had to defend their climate policies collectively before a court. The young plaintiffs initiated the legal action in 2020, following several years of record-breaking heat in Portugal and devastating wildfires in 2017.
The year also witnessed an unsuccessful effort in the United Kingdom to hold an oil company's board members accountable for their negligent approach to climate risk.
In February, the UK-based environmental law organization, ClientEarth, initiated a groundbreaking lawsuit against Shell's board of directors. The lawsuit argued that Shell's failure to align its business and energy transition strategies with the goals of the Paris Agreement violated UK corporate law. Despite the high-profile nature of the case, both the High Court of England and Wales, as well as the Court of Appeal, ultimately dismissed it. Nevertheless, experts believe that this legal battle may foreshadow future climate litigation targeting corporate boards of directors, signaling a potential wave of accountability for those who dismiss climate risk.
In Italy, climate campaigners and citizens sued Italian oil major Eni in May for alleged deception and greenwashing. The case, brought by Greenpeace Italy, ReCommon, and 12 Italian citizens, alludes that Eni has deliberately undermined the climate dangers of its products, and has failed to align its business strategy with global climate goals. Alleging that this breaches human rights law, the groups and citizens have demanded the court to order a reduction of Eni's emissions by at least 45% by 2030. The case builds on the successful 2021 Milieudefensie case against Shell in the Netherlands, in which the Dutch court determined that Shell has a legal duty to respect human rights, and ordered the company to slash emissions across its supply chain by 45 percent by 2030. The Eni case came as new evidence emerged indicating the company was aware of the climate consequences of its products at least as early as the 1970s, yet continued to market methane gas as a clean fuel.
What to anticipate from 2024
As the urgency of the climate crisis escalates, the upcoming year is expected to witness a surge in new climate lawsuits. This growing global trend is set to bring forth significant legal developments, including potential judgments in the landmark climate cases heard by the European Court of Human Rights in 2023.
Firstly, in Germany, the stage is set for an evidentiary hearing in the highly watched Luciano Lliuya v. RWE case at the Hamm Regional Court. Peruvian farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya has taken legal action against prominent German energy utility RWE. His aim is to hold the company accountable for its contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, which have resulted in localized flooding in his village due to the melting of nearby mountain glaciers. The outcome of this case could have far-reaching implications for the liability of companies in relation to their role in climate change impacts.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands' legal battle between Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and Shell continues to draw attention. After the groundbreaking 2021 verdict that held Shell responsible for failing to align its business with the decarbonization targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, the company has appealed the decision. The appeals court in the Netherlands is now set to hear Shell's appeal, with proceedings scheduled to start on April 2, 2024. The outcome of this appeal will determine whether Shell will be held to account for its climate actions and potentially influence the legal landscape for other companies.
These recent legal developments highlight the increasing importance of litigation in the fight against climate change. Climate-related cases are not anymore seen as ‘exotic’ but rather as means to an end, a distressing yet necessary ‘business as usual’. Courtrooms are emerging as vital arenas for justice, playing a crucial role in demanding action, fostering accountability, and safeguarding the rights of vulnerable individuals and future generations. As governments and corporations face greater scrutiny, these legal battles offer hope that the pursuit of climate justice will continue to gather momentum. What can we do to support those plaintiffs? Respond to their fundraising rounds when and if possible as well as spread their word about their effort and achievements. With each hearing in the courtroom, the urgency for decisive climate action reverberates more loudly, urging governments and global leaders to align their policies and decision-making with the imperatives of a sustainable clean-energy future.