Yesterday, a District Court in the Netherlands passed a judgement that is still reverberating around the world. For the first time, a group of citizens have successfully sued their government for not doing enough to protect them from the threat of climate change. The argument put forward by Urgenda, the environmental NGO representing the citizens, was that the government has a legal obligation to protect its citizens. The District Court agreed and after hearing scientific evidence of the impacts of climate change, ruled that the Dutch Government must increase its national emissions reductions targets from 17% by 2020 to between 25 – 40% by 2020 (based on 1990 levels).
While the ruling by the court is legally binding, the Dutch Government can appeal the District Court’s decision. Regardless of whether an appeal is launched by the Dutch Government, the ruling will have global significance as it may inspire similar cases in other countries. The groundwork for this has been established by the Oslo Principles (2015) which highlights the ‘essential obligations’ that Governments have in averting dangerous climate change. Already, there are reports that a similar case is about to get underway in Belgium, with about nine thousand plaintiffs.
The decision further adds to the ripples that have recently been caused by the Pope’s encyclical. The leader of the Catholic Church has reached out to the millions of followers calling for a fundamental shift from the business as usual paradigm to environmental stewardship. While climate change has been singled out (whether correctly or not) from the Pope’s message, it is grounded within the wider context of factors contributing to the current ‘human crisis’.
On its own merit, the overall bearing of the Dutch Court’s decision on the upcoming global climate negotiations may be negligible. Governments may move swiftly to curb similar court cases within their own jurisdictions. But when the decision is viewed together with the Pope’s encyclical, and the divestment movement seems to indicate that the Paris negotiations might actually (and hopefully) workout.