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Court orders countries to respond to young climate activists

Holly Young
November 30, 2020

Judges in Strasbourg have green-lit a landmark climate case that could hold governments accountable for moving too slowly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Four youth activists walk in woods in Portugal
Image: Global Legal Action Network

The European Court of Human Rights has told the governments of 33 industrialized countries to promptly respond to a climate lawsuit lodged by six youth campaigners in September, giving it priority status because of the "importance and urgency of the issues raised."

The young people, supported by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), allege the countries — which include Germany, the UK, Russia and Portugal — have failed to enact the emission cuts needed to protect their futures. 

The case focuses on countries whose policies lawyers argue are too weak to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) Paris Agreement goal. They cite the country ratings of the Climate Action Tracker

The plaintiffs range from age 8 to 21 and come from Lisbon and Leiria in Portugal. The case states climate change poses a rising threat to the six young people's lives and their physical and mental well-being. It invokes human rights arguments — including the right to life, a home and to family — as well as claiming discrimination. 

"Our generation is living in an age of great danger and uncertainty, so our voice must be heard," said Andre Oliveira, 12, whose father is translating for him.

Andre and Sofia, two of the young people from Portugal filing a climate case in Strasbourg
Andre, 12, and his sister Sofia, 15, are two of the six young people filing the climate case in Strasbourg Image: Nuno Gaspar Oliveira
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France
The climate case is the first of its kind to be filed at the European Court of Human RightsImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

"It's clearly not the case that young people are the only people vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Gerry Liston, legal officer at GLAN. "But because they stand to endure the worst impacts, we're saying the effects of failing to adequately address greenhouse gas emissions amounts to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of age."  

"It's not about finger-pointing, but all about giving all these 33 governments a chance to act better and faster," said Andre.

A first at Strasbourg 

While there are numerous recent and ongoing climate cases, many also involving young plaintiffs, it is the first of its kind to be brought to Strasbourg. The international court, set up in 1959, deals with alleged violations of civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The pressing need for significant and wide-scale action among many large emitters warranted going directly to Strasbourg, rather than through domestic courts which is more common, explains Liston.

According to GLAN, if successful, the 33 countries would be legally bound to tackle overseas contributions to climate change, including that of multinational companies, as well as ramping up emissions cuts.

Wildfires burning in Portugal in 2017
Many of the young people cited experiencing the deadly Portuguese wildfires of 2017 as motivationImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. De Melo Moreira
Catarina, one of the youth activists in Portugal
Catarina, 20, says governments need to act to make the planet habitable for future generationsImage: Global Legal Action Network

Portuguese wildfires 

The plaintiffs belong to three families and became involved in the case after hearing about GLAN's climate work through a local contact.

Many cited seeing climate change hit their doorsteps as encouraging them to act, particularly the deadly Portuguese wildfires in 2017. 

"I directly experienced the terror of the fires," said Catarina Mota, 20, one of the four that live in Leiria, one of the areas hardest hit. Rising sea levels, the constant threat of forest fires and increasingly abnormal temperatures are now part of her everyday reality. "These changes make me feel apprehensive," she said, adding sometimes the heat makes it hard to breathe or sleep. In July this year thehottest temperatures  in 90 years were registered in the country. 

"What motivated me to be involved in this case was the desire for a world where one can at least survive," said Catarina. "Because if nothing is done by our governments this will not happen."

Climate action, such as this case, is necessary "in order to have a future and a healthy life without fear" said plaintiff Claudia Agostinho, 21. "Our generation and all future generations deserve this."

Power plant emitting gas
The case focuses on 33 high emitters of greenhouse gases Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Kirchner

Wave of climate litigation 

The Strasbourg case is one of a growing wave of climate litigation around the world. According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment , while the majority happen in the US, over the last year climate cases were filed across six continents, 80% of them against governments.  

It also noted a recent increase in litigation by activists and advocacy groups, and the use of human rights arguments. 

While there are ongoing cases in many countries — including South Korea, Peru, and Canada — regarding states' human rights obligations to mitigate climate change, the most recent high-profile example is the Dutch Urgenda case .

In 2019, the country's Supreme Court became the first highest level domestic court to establish a state's duty to significantly and immediately reduce emissions in line with human rights obligations. This summer activists were also successful in taking the Irish government to court over climate action failures. Greta Thunberg is among 16 youth activists who also have an ongoing legal complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.  

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg surrounded by fellow strikers
Greta Thunberg (center) is among a group of 16 children that have filed a legal complaint at the UN Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Chiasson
Four of the youth activists from Portugal filing a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
Liston says the case highlights there are people who will suffer the severe impact of climate change in their lifetimeImage: Global Legal Action Network

Politics, protest and the courts

"I think one case inspires the other," said Caroline Schroeder, from Germanwatch, an NGO supporting nine young people with aconstitutional climate complaint in Germany. She sees the Strasbourg case and growing trend of climate litigation as born of the same mounting frustration driving the Fridays for Future movement — namely, that "politics is not doing enough." 

"I wish we wouldn't have to bring the cases," said Roda Verheyen, a climate lawyer working on the People's Climate Case filed against the EU institutions. "But it is essentially still the case that the level of protection afforded to our children by the legislators is too low. And that's why the courts will keep seeing these cases." 

Verheyen points out that in emphasizing a general duty to protect rather than challenging a specific law, the Strasbourg case is less concrete than others she has worked on. Yet a win there could have wide-reaching implications for member states, she adds, and even a loss could potentially "reinforce the strength of the litigation both in national cases and on the EU level."

It's ultimate strength, Liston argues, is in bringing home the time perspective and imminence of the threat.

"This case shows that there are people who stand to suffer horrendous effects of climate change within their lifetime," said Liston. 

The youngest plaintiff, now 8, will be 28, in 2040, the year in which the UN panel of scientists expect many of the most severe consequences of climate change to unfold. 

Andre, 12, said he hopes the case will bring "acknowledgement of the voice of a generation that lives with high anxiety and increasing fear of incoming catastrophes, but also a generation that has all the hope that things will change." 

This article was updated on 30.11.2020 to include the decision from the European Court of Human Rights.

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