Historic Urgenda Climate Ruling Upheld by Dutch Supreme Court

by | Dec 21, 2019

The Netherlands’ Supreme Court upheld the landmark ruling in Urgenda v. the Netherlands, announcing its decision on Friday that governments have a human rights duty to protect their citizens from climate change.

The strongly worded judgment orders the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

The final decision backs lower court rulings in the case, initially by the District Court of The Hague in 2015 and reaffirmed by the Court of Appeal last October. Earlier this year, independent judicial officials advised the Dutch Supreme Court to uphold it. The case was brought by the nonprofit Urgenda Foundation, which charged that the country’s climate policies were not strong enough to protect its citizens.

Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel for Urgenda, welcomed the “unequivocal” judgment, stressing that it was the first time any court in the world had ruled on the human rights implications of climate change.

It said the state had clear obligations to protect the environment under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights involving the right to life and the right to a private and family life.

“It’s not just the final decision but the way the judges argued their reasoning,” van Berkel said. “The court was very clear. Human rights protect people against the impacts of climate change and the government and parliament have to respect those human rights when defining their policies. That’s why this is a case for the courts to decide, because the dangers of climate change are so massive that they are human rights issues.” 

The court also said governments need to consider the latest climate science when drawing up policies, in this case putting those policies in line with the maximum 1.5 Celsius global warming target stressed by the IPCC. 

The case is seen as a landmark in climate litigation, and has inspired similar suits across the world including in the U.S., Norway, Pakistan, Ireland, Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), described the judgment as “really outstanding news”. 

“Having followed this case along its trajectory, it began not only with a well-argued case from Urgenda but a really carefully thought out decision from the original district court. The more thoroughly these issues are analysed the more inescapable the conclusions have become; that every state has a fundamental human rights obligation to address the threat of climate change and to address it now, not in the future.”

Muffett said the judgment is consistent with the findings of other enquiries, including the recent one by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. “The court interpreted the European Convention of Human Rights but what it was basically interpreting was the right to life, property and livelihood. And the court found implicitly in those the right to a livable environment and a climate that can sustain life.”

The Dutch government previously said it would comply with the ruling, but disagreed with the courts’ opinion that it had a legal duty to protect the environment for its people.

Netherlands minister of economic affairs and climate policy Eric Wiebes said in a statement that the government had “taken note” of the decision and will issue a formal response in the second half of January.

Urgenda’s success is expected to have a positive impact on other pending suits, including a case brought by a group of Dutch environmental groups earlier this year against Royal Dutch Shell. The case is represented by Roger Cox, the same lawyer who initially represented Urgenda. 

They argue that Shell’s business model poses a threat to the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. In a formal reply in November, Shell denied that it was liable. 

Nine de Pater, climate and energy researcher and campaigner at Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, which is leading the suit against Shell, said the Supreme Court’s Urgenda decision is important because both cases use a similar legal reasoning based on human rights obligations.

Muffett said the judgment may also affect a current case challenging the Norwegian government’s approval of offshore oil drilling,

“The truth is we now have a rising number of cases across European and round the world where these findings are going to be relevant,” Muffett said. “We are now in a place where the law is increasingly on their side.”

Isabella Kaminski
+ posts

Isabella Kaminski is a freelance journalist specializing in climate justice, environmental law, and policy.