09 Apr 2024, 14:00
Benjamin Wehrmann Julian Wettengel

NGOs hail European human rights court ruling as breakthrough for climate action

Board members of the association Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland. Photo: Elke Hegemann / Forward / Greenpeace

German environmental NGOs have welcomed a landmark climate victory by an association of women in Switzerland at the European Court of Human Rights as a breakthrough for climate action. The court found that the European Convention on Human Rights encompasses a right to effective protection by government authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, well-being and quality of life, and that the Swiss government's action has been inadequate. NGO representatives said that the ruling could set a precedent for climate court cases based on human rights arguments.

A judgement by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which found that the Swiss government had violated human rights of a group of older women by failing to effectively mitigate the effects of climate change, has been hailed as a groundbreaking victory by several German environmental groups.

Environmental Action Germany (DUH) said the ruling in a lawsuit by the association Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland against the state showed that governments must be held accountable if they do not take enough action on climate change. DUH head Jürgen Resch said the ruling “is a breakthrough for climate action and shows that also our own lawsuit that was submitted in 2022 at the ECHR has a chance to succeed.”

The NGO is currently supporting a group of nine young people that had litigated against the state on the same grounds as the Swiss pensioners. The ECHR put the case on hold until a ruling on the Swiss case was finalised. “The insufficient Climate Action Law (in Germany) continues to threaten the freedom and livelihood of young litigants and future generations,” Resch argued.

While the German government kept promising its intention to put the country on an emissions reduction path compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, recent analyses by experts had shown that the remaining carbon budget for this aim has already been used up, he added. “This is unacceptable and runs counter to human rights,” he said.

Greenpeace Germany's Gianna Martini said the court had "made history" with the ruling as it obliges states to protect the climate. This would have an impact far beyond Europe, she said. "It is a global milestone in the fight against the climate crisis and provides the legal basis for more people to assert their right to climate protection in future. […] This decision is encouraging and will inspire further climate lawsuits, including from Germany."

Ruling sets "crucial legally binding precedent" – NGO

The Swiss association of elderly women argued that their government's climate action has been insufficient to mitigate the effects of climate change on their living conditions and health. The European Court of Human Rights found that the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights) means that states have to protect people "from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, well-being and quality of life."

The court said that the Swiss state had failed to act "in time and in an appropriate way to devise, develop and implement relevant legislation and measures." Switzerland had missed past climate targets and the government failed "to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limitations," said the court. The court threw out two similar cases on the same day.

"The Swiss ruling sets a crucial legally binding precedent serving as a blueprint for how to successfully sue your own government over climate failures," Ruth Delbaere, legal campaigns director at Avaaz, told news agency Reuters. Swiss environment minister Albert Rösti said the country already “is doing well” regarding climate action, pointing at a climate action law and a CO2 pricing scheme that were recently adopted in a public referendum. “Switzerland has taken decisive steps for climate protection,” Rösti said in a report by tabloid Blick.

Another landmark ruling with respect to climate action obligations was made a few days earlier in India, where the country’s Supreme Court expanded the scope of “right to life” to include “protection against adverse effects of climate change.” The ruling recognised that climate change threatens “constitutional guarantees of equality and health”, impacting factors such as air pollution, disease, and food security, newspaper The Independent said.

Court cases have increasingly been used to push governments across the globe to introduce more effective climate action. In an unexpected decision in 2021, widely hailed as historic, Germany's highest court had ruled that the government's climate legislation was insufficient, lacking detail on emission reduction targets beyond 2030. The decision significantly strengthened climate action by ruling that if the government fails to protect the climate, it could violate citizens’ fundamental rights, legal experts had said.

[Find a Q&A by the European Court of Human Rights on the climate case rulings here.]

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