The #SeeYouInCourt campaign is used to describe the growing international trend in climate change litigation. Climate change litigation is a way of using the legal justice system to demand greater climate change mitigation from governments and companies. Activist bodies, individuals and organisations use climate litigation to compel these public and private bodies to accelerate their efforts, for example, by implementing emissions reduction targets, connect harms suffered by vulnerable comunities to emitters and more.
UNEP has recognised 6 categories that describe the trends in climate change litigation:
Climate rights: relying on human rights enshrined in international and domestic legislation to compel climate action.
Domestic enforcement: challenging doemstic (non-) enforcement of climate-related policies and laws.
Keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
Corporate liability and responsibility.
Failure to adapt to the impacts of adaptation.
Climate disclosure and greenwashing: advocating for climate disclosure to end greenwashing.
The importance of climate change litigation
If successful, these cases can lead to binding judicial orders for governments, that require new climate change goals and systemic reforms. This, admitedly, sounds ambitious, and it is. The legal system in itself has been slow to correspond to the dynamically changing times, and the impact of climate-change litigation can be questioned on the basis that these procedures are time-consuming and justice may not be served for years. Further, defendants have the option to appeal judicial decisions, which can lead in the reversal of initial court orders. The very nature of such litigation gives courts an essential role in setting climate-related precedent. This is a role that is welcomed by some, but not so much by others, and whilst judges are by nature meant to be unbiased, many are not. On the other hand, in Michael Burger's words (Executive Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change at Columbia Law School):
“Courts can equalize the power imbalances in society and give force to the rule of law.”
Corporate actors describe climate-change litigation as a "risk" for companies, while others see it as an opportunity to break from the status quo and demand rigorous climate action of the biggest players responsible for climate change. It is definitely an important step to the right direction, in creating long-term change within and through the legal system. However, I maintain my reservations, especially due to Court's frequent reluctance to balance the interests of the parties involved.
Increasing global trends
In 2017, there were 654 cases in the US, and 230 cases in other countries. In 2020, these numbers have almost doubled, with 1200 cases taking place in the US but only 350 of them in other countries.
A recent case that gained a lot of traction over social media in February wa
s the Royal Dutch Shell case where the Hague District Court ordered Shell to reduce its direct worldwide emissions by 45% by 2030. The case was brought by Friends of Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) in 2019 alongside six other Dutch NGOs and 17,000 individuals.
Cases to keep an eye out for
Currently, here are some climate-change litigation cases that you can follow:
Paid to Pollute: legal challenge over the UK government's support for the North Sea oil and gas industry. The aim of the case is to show that the strategy followed by Oil and Gas Authority is unlawful and that policy such as tax breaks for oil companies, encourages oil and gas production and are therefore incompatible with the goals for net-zero by 2050. Three weeks after COP26, the cliamants will face the UK govenrment at the Royal Courts of Justice between the 8-9th of December 2021.
Two UK citizens Daze Aghaji and Peter Garforth are taking the UK government to court for failing to put in place policies to combat climate change. To ensure the path for net-zero, the UK government is required to adopt a carbon budget every 5 years, but the Climate Change Committee has found that the UK government has failed to do so. The failure to account for climate mitigation is a violation of human right and a breach of the government's legal obligations.
Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) filed a case against BMW and Mercedes-Benz for refusing to comply with their carbon-emission targets, intending to compel them to phase out diesel and gasoline cars by 2030.
Greenpece Germany has started proceedings against Volkswagen for fuelling the climate crisis on the basis that it is violating future freedom and property rights.
Martin Kaiser, Executive Director of Greenpeace Germany, said: “While people suffer from floods and droughts triggered by the climate crisis, the car industry, despite its enormous contribution to global warming, seems unaffected. The ruling of the Constitutional Court represents a mandate to quickly and effectively enforce the legal protection of our common livelihoods. We need all hands on deck to protect our common future.”
The importance of donations to activist groups and non-governmental/profit organisations
For these individuals and organisations to be able to continue to bring these actions in court, they need to be monetarily supported. For example, for Daze Aghaji and Peter Garforth's case, if their claim fails, they will have to pay for their own and for the government's legal fees. To support their cause, you can donate here.