1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Belgians sue state over climate targets

Rosie Birchard
March 26, 2021

Belgian citizens are taking authorities to court to demand tougher climate action. The case is part of a global trend that has seen activists accuse states of failing to protect rights through inadequate climate policy.

Belgian climate activists yelling
More than 60,000 Belgians are co-plaintiffs in a landmark case of citizens demanding tougher climate action from authoritiesImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir
Belgian climate activists yelling
More than 60,000 Belgians are co-plaintiffs in a landmark case of citizens demanding tougher climate action from authoritiesImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Brenda Odimba walked into Brussels' Justitia courthouse with a very clear message for her government: "Please stop denying your inaction and start taking action."

The engineer is one of more than 60,000 Belgian citizens that have taken the country's federal and regional authorities to court over what they claim are unlawful climate policy failings.

"We are not happy about what the government is doing," Odimba told DW, "As citizens, we have to push them because they are simply not listening to us."

The lawsuit, known as the "3," was lodged by Klimaatzaak (Climate Case), a non-governmental organization (NGO), in 2014. Since then, tens of thousands of people have signed a petition to become co-plaintiffs. 

Oral arguments in the case entered their final day on Friday, with the verdict expected before summer.

Brenda Odimba
Brenda Odimba is an engineer and one of the 65,000 co-plaintiffs in Belgium's landmark climate caseImage: DW

Abusing human rights through negligence

"This is probably the biggest court case in Belgian legal history," Klimaatzaak ambassador David van Reybrouk told DW. "The argument is that Belgian climate policies are endangering human rights now and in the future," he said.

The claimants are demanding authorities reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% of 1990 levels by 2030, and have denounced the state for failing to serve and protect citizens by falling short of previous international climate targets set as far back as 1992.

Members of the NGO Urgenda hug in a Netherlands courtroom
Urgenda, an environmental NGO, won a ruling against the Netherlands government, inspiring similar lawsuits across EuropeImage: picture-alliance/P.Dejong

Climate litigation breaking new ground across the globe

Belgium is the latest in a string of European countries whose governments have been brought before the courts by environmental organizations.

In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands made global headlines when it ordered the nation's government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% of 1990 levels by the end of 2020, "due to the risk of dangerous climate change that could have a severe impact on the lives and welfare of the residents of the Netherlands."

A sign from a climate protest in the Republic of Ireland
An NGO in the Republic of Ireland won a legal battle against its government in a case that followed the Netherlands rulingImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/A. Widak

The decision — partially based on government obligations to protect human rights — came after a long legal battle fought by the Netherlands NGO Urgenda. Similar rulings followed in Ireland in 2019 and France in 2020.

"Since 2015, we've seen an acceleration in the number of these cases and a broadening in their range of theories and targets," Nigel Brook, a British lawyer specialized in climate change liability, told DW. "We do see this very much as a trend," he added.

Brook said taking governments to court was not the preferred method for changing policy, "It's really if all else fails," he said.

Yet the lawyer believes litigation can force tangible results. "The Dutch government took a number of measures following the Urgenda ruling," Brook said. "They reduced speed limits on motorways but they also accelerated their closure of coal-fired power plants."

Many observers are closely watching a crowdfunded class action suit making its way through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The case, lodged by a group of young people from Portugal, accuses 33 countries of "failing to do their part to avert the climate catastrophe."

Belgium defends its record

In the Brussels courtroom, lawyers representing the Belgian government insisted that authorities have taken the climate crisis seriously.

Speaking of the government's approach to the climate crisis today, lawyer Nathalie Van Damme said, "There is a real awareness: you can see it in the 2020 government accord," according to courtroom reporting by French-language Belgian broadcaster RTBF.

Indeed, when Belgian parties hashed out the coalition agreement that set the course for the new government in September 2020, they dedicated an entire section to plans for "A Sustainable Country."

Since then, Environment Minister Zakia Khattabi of Belgium's French-speaking Green Party (known as Ecolo) has also pushed ahead with a sustainable development plan that had been on hold for a decade amid past government crises and coalition chaos.

Even Klimaatzaak's David van Reybrouk agreed that Belgian authorities had made progress in recent years but insisted it simply was "not enough."

No social justice without climate justice

As oral arguments neared their end, Brenda Odimba said she would be eagerly awaiting the judges' final verdict, due in a few months' time. For the engineer, the case goes far beyond target percentages or legal technicalities.

"It's always the same," she said. "It's poor people that suffer from climate change."

Odimba hopes that this case, like others before it, will help establish a legal link between climate justice, social justice and citizens' rights.

 "All these class action suits are going to transform our countries," she said. "Then we'll finally have countries where citizens feel protected, heard and served by their justice system."

Germany: Planting trees for climate justice