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Opinion

Opinion: Court action could be vital as IPCC confirms climate emergency

Another IPCC report, another dire warning. Yet world leaders and big polluters are doing little to reduce emissions. DW's Stuart Braun says climate litigation could be the only way out.

Man runs in front of burning forest

Australia suffered unprecedented climate fires in 2020 but is stalling on climate action at a critical time

After a month of unprecedented flooding and wildfires in Europe, it isn't surprising to learn — yet again — that human-induced global heating is the culprit.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has drawn on newer and ever vaster sources of data to confirm that yes, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is messing irrevocably with our climate.

Now we are hearing that the planet could warm by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to 1900 within 15 years — which might have been averted until century's end if we managed to cut emissions as agreed in Paris in 2015.

But we've been told again that it's not yet too late. If the world can still reach net zero emissions by 2050, temperatures will rise only a little above 1.5 C before they stabilize. In that scenario, they will even reduce by 2100.

Is there the political will to make this happen? Not on current evidence. Hopelessly inadequate Paris climate accord pledges have actually put us on course to warm by around 3 C by century's end.

Right now, temperatures are up 1.1 C, and climate fires, floods and sea level rise are already upon us. If we hit 3 C, we are in very deep trouble.   

Emissions need to be falling now so that important 2030 reduction targets can be met. Instead, they are set to increase in 2021 following the mere blip of a decrease last year due to the pandemic.

High-carbon status quo

Last year, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggested that by simply investing in green jobs and infrastructure and choosing climate-friendly policies, world leaders could lower emissions by a quarter of what they would otherwise be by 2030. Suggested solutions included ending fossil fuel subsidies, banning new coal plants and reforestation.

Stuart Braun

Stuart Braun, DW environment reporter

But instead, most rich countries continue to support a "high-carbon status quo," stated the UNEP.

While US President Joe Biden has started to reverse some of the disastrous pro-fossil fuel policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, the devil is in the detail of the net zero pledge by the world's biggest historical carbon emitter.

Meanwhile, China's 2060 decarbonization commitment may also be too little too late. And Australia, the second-largest per capita emitter in the OECD, where firestorms raged for months in 2019 and 2020, has refused to commit to net zero by 2050 and is touting a "gas-fired" economic recovery from the pandemic.

Time to hold the polluters accountable

Thankfully, a new tactic in the fight to rapidly decarbonize is quickly emerging. Activists and young people are going to the courts and suing governments and fossil fuel companies. They are successfully arguing that polluters threaten their future and hence their human rights.

The German government has been forced to come up with more ambitious climate targets; Big Oil companies like Shell have been ordered to drastically cut emissions (45% in 10 years) and pay billions in fines. Their shareholders are also revolting and demanding climate action.

Watch video 02:03

Residents flee Athens suburbs as wildfires approach

A high court told Australia's Environment Ministry that it owes a duty of care to Australian children who could suffer potential "catastrophic harm" from approving an extension to a coal mine.

Kaisa Kosonen, who works on climate policy at Greenpeace, said she'll be taking the IPCC report to the courts after it was released today. She added that the recent landmark legal victory over Shell in the Netherlands was made possible by the backing of IPCC science.

Despite all the goodwill created on the streets by the student and Fridays for Future climate protests, public pressure alone is not forcing parliaments to act. It is through the tidal wave of climate litigation that is about to hit courts around the world that citizens themselves can trigger rapid decarbonization — and avert catastrophic global heating.

 

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