Landmark Dutch Ruling Makes Global Warming a Matter for Courts

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Photo: Dutch Court Ruling

A Dutch court ordered the government to tighten greenhouse gas pollution rules to avert the threat climate change poses to citizens, a ruling that could embolden legal challenges by environmentalists across Europe.

A district court in The Hague said the government of the Netherlands was negligent and has the responsibility to protect its people from climate change. It’s the first time a court has ordered a government to do more to address climate change, said ClientEarth, an environmental group for lawyers.

Environmentalists embraced the decision, saying it would strengthen efforts to use courts in forcing governments to move faster on curbing damage from fossil fuels to the climate. The Netherlands will at most reduce emissions by 17 percent from 1990 levels by the end of this decade, short of the reduction of at least 25 percent ordered by the court.

“This historic ruling will have far-reaching consequences in the Netherlands, Europe and the rest of the world,” Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch member of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, said Wednesday by e-mail. “The Netherlands has now the legal obligation to step up its climate efforts considerably.”

The Dutch government will study the ruling, said Wilma Mansveld, state secretary for the environment, in a statement cited by press agency ANP. “We share the same goal,” she said. “We only disagree on the way to reach this.”

Tort Law

The ruling backed a suit brought by Dutch environmental group Urgenda Foundation, which represents 886 residents. The court agreed that by adopting a too-weak climate target, the state was endangering its citizens, which was against tort law, said Dennis van Berkel, Urgenda’s legal counsel. “That’s not proper social conduct,” he said in a telephone interview.

The victory by environmentalists is just one step toward involving the courts in pollution rules and may fail to translate to other jurisdictions, said James Cameron, the former chairman of Climate Change Capital, who has advised the European Union on energy policy.

“There’s no automatic precedent from a domestic district court decision,” Cameron said by phone. “When people build cases, particularly in public law, they compile references from other jurisdictions by way of comparison. Some people will use it, of course.”

U.K. Case

The U.K. Supreme Court in April ordered the British government to prepare new plans to show EU regulators how the country will comply with air pollution limits after breaching them for five years.

Urgenda had sought a 40 percent reduction from the Dutch government in its suit, first filed in November 2012.

The court, citing scientific findings set out by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said developed countries should aim for 25 percent to 40 percent cuts. It said that by ordering a reduction at the low end of the range, it was holding back from entering the political arena.

“It really is ground-breaking,” James Thornton, chief executive officer of ClientEarth, said by phone from London. “We don’t have a case before where a court has ordered a government to take steps to reduce climate change.”

The EU has a target to reduce emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. Last year the bloc fixed a 2030 reduction limit of 40 percent as it seeks to draw other nations into climate-protection policies that scientists say are needed.

“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the court said. It concluded that the EU target for 2020 is below the “standard deemed necessary by scientists.”

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