December 10. 2023. 7:28

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The David vs Goliath legal climate case

This week, the halls of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg will witness an event that could potentially redefine the climate action landscape in Europe, writes Romain Didi.

On September 27th, the stage will be set for what promises to be a historic legal battle, known as the Portuguese Youth case.

But this is no ordinary courtroom drama; it’s a courageous assertion of the rights of six young individuals who are demanding that 32 European governments up their ante when it comes to addressing the climate crisis.

What also makes this legal tussle intriguing is the role of the European Commission, which has thrown its weight behind 27 out of 32 defendant states.

The heart of the matter is the claim that insufficient climate action by these governments violates multiple fundamental human rights: the right to life, the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to privacy and family life, and the right to be free from discrimination.

The six young people from Portugal emphasise that European nations must make drastic, immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to safeguard their rights, particularly after the devastating wildfires that ravaged their country in 2017.

This courtroom drama unfolds against a backdrop of scorching summers, wildfires, and record-breaking heatwaves across Europe and beyond. It’s a classic David versus Goliath narrative as these six young people take on an impressive lineup of 32 European governments, including all 27 EU member states and the UK, Norway, Switzerland, Russia, and Turkey.

In the middle, 17 judges whose task is to decide on the pivotal question: Have these governments failed to protect fundamental rights by not doing enough to combat the climate crisis?

The significance of this case cannot be overstated. It can potentially hold European governments accountable for their lacklustre climate efforts, potentially driving them to take more substantial action to honour the commitment to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the goal all accused governments have pledged to support under the Paris Agreement.

The European Union has been granted a voice in this hearing, given its role in coordinating the climate policy of 27 out of the 32 defendant states. Hence, the European Commission was accepted as a third-party intervener and was asked to provide the Court with information to assist it in reaching its decision.

The European Commission seeks to portray the EU’s climate policy as adequate, emphasising its commitment to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050, suggesting that the EU is a “global standard-setter”.

This is precisely where the shoe pinches.

The young claimants underpin their arguments with scientific evidence that warns of the dire consequences if every nation adopts a similar level of ambition as these 32 countries. Such a scenario could lead to global warming surging to 3°C or even beyond their lifetimes – a catastrophic outcome far exceeding the Paris Agreement’s objective. We have witnessed again this summer what only 1.2°C of global warming can do to Europe and the world, with increasingly frequent and severe fires, floods, and heatwaves.

This leads us to ask ourselves a fundamental question: Is 3°C of global warming the standard the EU aims to set for the world? This goes against the stark warnings from scientists who evidenced that limiting global warming to 1.5°C is the threshold required to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Civil society organisations, including CAN Europe, have also been granted third-party intervenor status, putting forth arguments that support the claimants and that encourage the Court to establish clear criteria linking greenhouse gas emissions to violations of human rights, with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C limit as a binding benchmark to calculate states’ fair shares in global efforts to reach this goal.

The grim reality is that perilous climate change and governments’ insufficient climate action violate human rights. As more individuals step forward to assert their right to live on a planet hospitable to current and future generations, major emitters, including Europe, are confronted with an unequivocal imperative to intensify their efforts to curb emissions.

The measures currently on the table are undeniably insufficient. Attaining, at a minimum, a 65% reduction in gross greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2040 at the latest are not merely prudent suggestions – they represent the moral, ethical, and legal obligations that Europe must unflinchingly embrace.

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