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Ignore climate science, and we will see you in court

Wednesday, 17 October 2018 09:49 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Governments around the world are now on notice

Marjan Minnesma is director of Urgenda

For the second time since 2015, a court in the Netherlands has ruled that climate change poses a grave danger to Dutch citizens and the government should do its utmost to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015 the District Court ordered the government to significantly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2020. Despite widespread calls not to appeal, they fought the judgment. The court sided with us again.

This week in its decisive judgment, the court ruled that failure to reduce emissions would amount to a violation of Dutch citizens’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The Dutch Government cannot hide behind other countries emissions. It has an independent duty to reduce emissions from its own territory,” said Judge Tan de Sonnaville. 

Our victory gives hope to people all over the world who are turning to the courts to protect their human rights against dangerous climate change. This global movement will continue to hold our political leaders to account.

Our victory in the Court of Appeal confirms that the Dutch government should have focused its efforts on increasing its action on climate change, rather than fighting our climate case.


On Monday the Dutch government signed off on the UN climate science panel’s special report on 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which shows we need to accelerate climate action to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change.

It confirmed that allowing temperatures to rise to 2C would significantly increase the risks that climate change poses to human health and livelihoods and ecosystems we depend on.

It would accelerate sea-level rise, which poses an existential threat to low-lying countries like the Netherlands. Right now, we are heading for a catastrophic 3 to 4 degrees of warming.

Despite these projections and their commitments under the Paris Agreement, governments around the world are lagging way behind the necessary level of action. All of the leaders of the Netherlands’ main political parties, whether from the left or right, have repeatedly stated that they support Paris”.

And yet, they appealed our climate case because they were not prepared to do the hard work of cutting emissions in the short term—specifically, by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020. Carbon dioxide emissions in the Netherlands have not declined a single percent in the past 28 years since the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change was drafted.

That is one reason our case is so significant: unless governments urgently bend the curve of emissions downwards, it will be almost impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Our victory has put all governments on notice. They must take serious action now,  or they will be held legally accountable.


This is a message that should resonate loudly as the European Union prepares its position leading up to the annual UN climate talks in December. 

The Appeal Court made it clear that the level of emissions reductions over the next few years is critical. If the EU doesn't increase its wholly insufficient climate targets for 2020 and 2030, then it should be prepared for its citizens to turn to the courts. 

In fact, since the District Court’s decision, 10 families have filed a case against the EU in the in the European General Court on the basis that the EU’s climate policies threaten their fundamental rights. 

On the other side of the Atlantic, later this month a group of children will face the Trump administration in court over its climate targets, arguing it has “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property’. 

In Switzerland, an inspiring group of senior women have taken legal action for a safe climate for themselves and their grandchildren, and in Belgium, almost 40,000 citizens are calling their government to account for not fulfilling its promises to take more action. 

At just 1C of warming, we are already seeing glimpses of the untold suffering that a warmer world will bring. If governments fail to act now, it will be with full knowledge of the consequences that lie ahead. It will be a failure that is deeply unjust. 

The court acknowledged exactly that: its decision is a source of hope and inspiration for our global movement, and a wake-up call for governments all over the world. 

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