A Dutch court today ordered the Netherlands to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020 to combat climate change in a ruling that environmentalists hope will set a key precedent around the world.
Urgenda, an advocacy group representing 900 Dutch citizens, brought the lawsuit claiming the government has a legal obligation to protect its citizens from ongoing threats, including climate change.
The Netherlands, with its lowland elevations, is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
"[I]t is established that if the global emissions, partly caused by the Netherlands, do not decrease substantially, hazardous climate change will probably occur," Judge Hans Hofhuis wrote.
"In the opinion of the court, the possibility of damages for those whose interests Urgenda represents, including current and future generations of Dutch nationals, is so great and concrete that given its duty of care, the State must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change."
Urgenda had sought to force the government to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 25 and 40 percent from 1990 levels. Hofhuis settled on the minimum.
The ruling comes on the heels of Pope Francis’ encyclical arguing a moral case for combating climate change (ClimateWire, June 18). Countries are also working to publish their climate change efforts in the run-up to November’s U.N. conference in Paris, which some hope will lead to a global accord.
Marjan Minnesma, who filed the case for Urgenda, said the ruling should spur worldwide efforts to force countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by court action.
"Millions of people that are already suffering the consequences of climate change are hoping that we, the people that have caused the emissions and have the means to reduce them, will intervene while there is still time," she said in a statement. "Those people can now, with our verdict in their hands, start their own climate cases."
There are similar cases pending in Belgium as well as the Philippines. Norwegians have also brought a case challenging the government’s permitting new oil development in the Arctic.
It appears unlikely that the ruling will have an impact in the United States. The Supreme Court in 2011 rejected an effort by states to force greenhouse gas reductions under common-law nuisance claims. The high court reasoned that the United States has a federal statute, the Clean Air Act, intended to resolve those issues that therefore pre-empts the state-level tort claims.
Similarly, an effort by children’s groups to force states and the country to take more aggressive action on climate change under the "public trust" doctrine has been unsuccessful (Greenwire, Oct. 6, 2014).
In other countries, the influence of the Dutch ruling depends on how receptive judges are to international precedents. Hofhuis’ reasoning could be adopted by other courts.
Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, said courts in other countries are far more willing to engage in political battles. It remains unclear whether the Dutch government will appeal this ruling, but if it stands, Parenteau said, it could have a major impact.
"I think the real law in climate is going to be made outside the United States,” he said. “In countries where we’ve seen courts willing and able to exercise independent judgment about whether the government is performing as it’s supposed to, there is a huge possibility for advances in the law."
A U.S. environmental attorney who did not want to be quoted on the record before reading the entire opinion, agreed.
"If it takes a toehold in Europe, then Asia, it starts to be come a very big deal," the lawyer said.
If that were to happen, the attorney said, the ruling could have the same influence as an international treaty.
Click here for the translated ruling.