See you in court, citizens tell governments on climate change

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 January 2019 08:00 GMT

Environmental activists gather to urge world leaders to take action against climate change in Marseille, France, September 8, 2018. The placard reads No nature no future. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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Legal actions are based on the principle that governments must meet their obligations under human rights law and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Jan 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Environmentalists in France and Ireland are pushing forward with legal cases aimed at forcing their governments to step up action on climate change, motivated by a 2018 flagship ruling that the Netherlands must cut emissions faster to keep its people safe.

In October, a Dutch appeals court said the government had "done too little to prevent the dangers of climate change and is doing too little to catch up", ordering it to ensure planet-warming emissions are at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

Tessa Khan, a lawyer with the Urgenda Foundation which brought the Dutch case on behalf of nearly 900 citizens, said this and other ongoing climate legal actions are based on the principle that governments must meet their obligations under human rights law and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

"(These cases) all spring from the same sort of inspiration and the broad notion that our governments have the duty to protect us from threats of this scale that they have contributed to knowingly," said Khan, who is co-director of the Climate Litigation Network.

In France, four non-governmental groups, including Greenpeace and Oxfam, fired the starting gun on Dec. 17.

They sent a "preliminary request for compensation" in a 41-page letter to the French prime minister and a dozen government ministers, denouncing the state for failing to take concrete and effective measures to combat climate change.

The government has two months to respond, and if it fails to give a satisfactory answer, the groups are preparing to file a full legal action with the Paris Administrative Court in March.

Armelle Le Comte, climate and energy advocacy manager at Oxfam France, said the ripple of lawsuits on climate action around the world - from Europe and North America to Pakistan and Colombia - reflected growing urgency as the impacts of extreme weather and rising seas become more visible.

Governments, including France, have talked a lot about tackling climate change, but have not done enough in practice, she noted.

"So I think it is not surprising that more citizens, charities and NGOs ... decide that legal action is maybe the answer," she said.

CELEBS ON CAMERA

In the meantime, the NGOs have been raising awareness about the case and the need for stronger climate action in France through a YouTube video featuring celebrities such as actress Juliette Binoche, and writer and film director Cyril Dion.

They also launched an online petition in support of what they are calling the "Case of the Century" that has garnered nearly 2.1 million signatures in about a month.

Le Comte said wide public support for the legal action was important in providing a sense of legitimacy to the approach.

The case is particularly poignant in France, which has been rocked in recent months by "yellow vest" protests over social inequality and the high cost of living that were initially sparked by planned hikes in fuel tax.

French President Emmanuel Macron launched a national policy debate this week that includes how the country could shift to using more clean energy.

Urgenda's Khan said the court cases were aimed at ensuring emissions targets are met, not telling states how to do it.

"Then it's up to the governments and the public to make sure the policies that are put in place are ones that ensure a just (energy) transition and ... the poorest aren't the ones who bear the burden of that transition," she said.

Oxfam's Le Comte said the "Case of the Century" social media campaign was meant to provide more information, especially to young people, on the measures that could be taken.

IRISH EMISSIONS RISE

In Ireland, backers of the climate change case, scheduled to begin in the High Court on Jan. 22, are organising a children's rally in Dublin on Saturday to urge leaders that "2019 must be the year of ambitious climate action".

About 12,600 members of the public have backed "Climate Case Ireland" with online messages of support. Spokeswoman Sadhbh O Neill said awareness was growing in the country which has among the highest emissions per capita in the European Union.

"That helps us show the court that we have standing, that we're not doing it in a self-interested way and that we are trying to be representative of concerned citizens," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Friends of the Irish Environment, a company set up by environmental activists, will argue in the case that the government's approval of the National Mitigation Plan in 2017 violated national legislation on climate action, as well as its constitution and human rights obligations.

It will also claim the plan falls far short of the steps required by the Paris Agreement.

O Neill noted that Ireland's emissions had risen since 2014, as its economy recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, and its dairy industry expanded. They dropped back slightly in 2017, government figures show.

A spokesman for Ireland's Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said by email that the government would defend the case, but noted the National Mitigation Plan recognised a detailed roadmap would be required to decarbonise the economy.

That is now being put in place, he added, and includes a government-wide climate action plan "intended to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate disruption".

The verdict in the Irish case, a judicial review, is expected to be issued in a few months, while the French legal process could last two to three years, Le Comte said.

In the Netherlands, it took three years for an initial ruling to be confirmed by the appeals court, and the government said in November it would request a review of the judgement.

Khan said one key advantage of pursuing states in court was judicial scrutiny of the evidence on climate change.

"Just by putting the facts on the record - that in itself is a really important communication tool, and helps to mobilise the public around climate change," she said.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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