• How might the European Climate Trials impact the petrochemical industry?

Environmental Laboratory

How might the European Climate Trials impact the petrochemical industry?

Jun 29 2023

The dawn of a new age of environmental accountability is upon us. Across Europe, governments find themselves in the defendants' seat, called to respond to charges of inadequate efforts to address carbon emissions and climate change. As we move further into the 2020s, the consequences of unmet climate commitments grow more severe, propelling individuals and groups to pursue justice through legal means. 

In Britain, the government faces mounting legal pressure concerning its net zero policy, accused of insufficient measures to curb emissions. It underscores the underlying question – if individuals are held accountable when they violate the law, why not hold leaders to the same standard, especially when their inaction can lead to the most dire consequences? 

Globally, an increasing number of groups are initiating lawsuits against governments and corporations, demanding stringent adherence to climate goals. Plaintiffs range from young activists like Anjali Sharma, who is battling the Australian government over a proposed coalmine, to large NGOs. This illustrates that "all the levers of change are on the table," as stated by Christiana Figueres to Euronews Green. She emphasized that litigation would persist, given the success of several past cases, adding that it plays a crucial role in holding us accountable. 

This article brings into focus some of the most impactful climate court cases underway in Europe, both ongoing and triumphant. 

In Norway, climate advocates have lodged a case with the European Court of Human Rights, opposing the government's continued plans for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. The plaintiffs, backed by Greenpeace and Young Friends of the Earth, contend that the proposed fossil fuel drilling threatens the future of the younger generation. One of the activists, a member of the indigenous Sámi community, points to climate change as a significant risk to their traditional lifestyle. After domestic courts sided with the government, the advocates turned to the ECHR for justice. 

The UK government finds itself embroiled in multiple legal confrontations this year. Recently, ClientEarth filed court papers accusing the government of breaching a key part of the Human Rights Act – the young population's right to life and family life – by failing to meet legal carbon budgets. Britain’s strategy for achieving net zero by 2050, critics argue, lacks concrete plans and instead relies on unproven technologies like CO2 extraction from the atmosphere. These legal challenges follow hot on the heels of the Paid to Pollute campaign, which accused the government of squandering billions on supporting the oil and gas industry. 

In the Netherlands, a significant victory was won when Shell was ordered by a lower court in The Hague to cut carbon emissions by 45 per cent. This ruling came in response to a case filed by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and other co-plaintiffs, demanding changes by 2030. This case stands out as the demands focused on policy modifications rather than compensation. 

A group of young Portuguese activists has managed to fast-track their climate case to the European Court of Human Rights. They argue that the impacts of climate change infringe upon their right to life. The case has been filed against 33 governments, including all EU countries, Turkey, Ukraine, Switzerland, UK, Russia, and Norway. They argue that being positioned to endure the consequences of climate change longer than older generations qualifies as discriminatory. 

In Ireland, Friends of the Irish Environment successfully challenged the government's climate policy in court. Their argument was that the 'National Mitigation Plan' created in 2017 contravened Irish law and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the activists, criticizing the plan's lack of specificity and urging the government to detail its approach to reducing emissions. This case is regarded as a breakthrough, setting a precedent for future environmental litigation. 

A landmark ruling occurred in France when the government was held accountable for climate inaction. This ruling came about after an online petition dubbed 'L'Affaire du Siècle' (The Case of the Century) garnered over 2 million signatures, leading to a lawsuit filed by four NGOs. The French court concluded that the government had failed to meet its climate commitments, marking the first time the French State has been legally recognized as responsible for ecological damage. The court ordered the government to pay symbolic damages of €1 to the NGOs and also directed it to take additional steps to fulfill its international obligations. 

A recent case in Belgium, launched by the Klimaatzaak (Climate Case) foundation, ended with the court ruling that the Belgian governments (federal and regional) had not met their obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The court's decision, a significant victory for climate activists, mandated the Belgian authorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 42% compared to 2005 levels by the end of 2025. 

In Germany, a group of young activists, backed by Fridays for Future and other environmental NGOs, successfully challenged the German Climate Protection Act in the Federal Constitutional Court. The court agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that the government's targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions were insufficient and unfairly burdened future generations. This decision compelled the German government to revise its climate law, setting stricter emission reduction targets. 

These court cases are a part of a global trend in environmental litigation, with citizens, NGOs, and environmental activists increasingly turning to the courts to hold governments and corporations accountable for their contributions to climate change. 

While these lawsuits often face steep hurdles, their increasing prevalence and occasional victories indicate a growing recognition that legal avenues can play a role in forcing climate action. Moreover, the court's validation of climate science in these cases is significant in itself, lending more weight to the urgency of tackling climate change. 

The urgency of these court cases also highlights the ongoing challenge of translating international and national climate commitments into tangible and effective policies. While setting ambitious targets is critical, so too is developing concrete plans for achieving these targets. As we witness an era of unprecedented legal scrutiny of climate policies, governments and corporations alike must reckon with the fact that failure to act on climate change carries real legal risks. 

In conclusion, as the stakes of the climate crisis become ever more apparent, and as climate litigation continues to gain momentum, it's clear that the courtroom has become another important front in the fight against global warming. 

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