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Protection from the climate crisis ruled a fundamental human right

Written By: - Date published: 7:10 am, December 23rd, 2019 - 24 comments
Categories: climate change, law - Tags: , , ,

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled Friday that the government must take urgent action on climate change to protect the fundamental rights of its people.

This decision came in a landmark case begun by the Dutch environmental group Urgenda in 2013, the first in the world to test whether citizens could use human rights law to force their governments to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

International human rights law obligates the Netherlands to reduce emissions, the court ruled, “because of the risk of a dangerous climate change that can also seriously affect the residents of the Netherlands in their right to life and well-being.”

Friday’s ruling could have an impact far beyond the Netherlands. The Dutch court based its decision in part on the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that is binding in 47 states including Russia and Turkey. That could allow citizens of those countries to use the Dutch decision to argue that European law is on their side in cases against their own governments.

Environmental lawyers also believe that a future case similar to Urgenda’s will eventually reach the top court created to enforce the Convention, the European Court of Human Rights, which has legal authority over every state that’s signed onto the treaty. When that happens, the Urgenda ruling will be a key precedent.

The Urgenda case has already had a global impact. At least a dozen similar cases have been filed in other countries in the past six years, including one in the United States still making its way through the courts. A few of these suits have produced significant victories. Judges in Pakistan and Colombia, for example, have ruled governments have an obligation to take climate action in order to protect their citizens’ fundamental rights.

Other cases in progress are detailed here.

In the judgement the Netherlands government is ordered to reduce GHG emissions by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. The government had been working to a 20% reduction, but by the end of 2018 levels had only dropped 15%.

By comparison the NZ government’s targets are,

  • an unconditional target to reduce our emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2020
  • a conditional target to reduce New Zealand’s emissions to between 10% and 20% below our 1990 levels by 2020

From an analysis by a Netherlands’ law firm,

The Supreme Court referred to the 2007 IPPC report which concluded that all developed countries will have to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% to 40% by 2020 to limit global warming to a 2ºC increase. The Supreme Court concluded that, considering this internationally accepted objective, the State had not sufficiently explained how a 20% decrease of emissions by 2020 (in the EU context) would be reasonable. Furthermore, the Supreme Court held that there is a broad consensus in the international community and climate science that if mitigating measures are delayed, it will become more complex and expensive to reach climate mitigation objectives and that there will be a larger risk of a ‘tipping point’ (drastic changes in climate).

Urgenda co-founder Marjan Minnesma wrote in Nature last week about the decade she spent taking the Netherlands government to court. She ended with this,

To provide a road map for change, Urgenda published a plan on 24 June — the fourth birthday of the first verdict (see go.nature.com/345d4zr; in Dutch). It included more than 700 organizations, including paper manufacturers, farmers, local sustainable-energy co-operatives and large environmental organizations. It set out 40 measures for reducing greenhouse gases by 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. These included driving at 100 instead of 130 kilometres per hour, raising water levels in nature reserves and energy-saving options for the health and industrial sectors. The foundation later added another ten measures.

So there are now 50 ways for the government of the Netherlands to make up for its failure to protect its citizens from warming of more than 1.5 °C, as the judges of the Supreme Court decreed on 20 December that it must. The 700 partners are poised to help, once the government delivers the money and support that are needed.

24 comments on “Protection from the climate crisis ruled a fundamental human right ”

  1. Formerly Ross 1

    The Government here is doing something to combat climate change.

    In 2007, a year before she left office, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark set out her vision for the country to become carbon neutral by 2020. The United Nations duly hailed her as a “Champion of the Earth.” But cutting carbon is not as simple as gaining attention.

    The latest official statistics show that New Zealand’s total emissions will actually be higher in 2020 than they were when Clark set her carbon-neutrality goal. And there has been an “increasing trend” in emissions since 1990, as the government itself admits. Yet successive administrations have consistently trumpeted climate success, by relying on what authoritative assessments charitably call “creative accounting”.

    These days, New Zealand is promising to cut its emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2020 – still 95% away from Clark’s earlier target. Real emissions in 2020 will in fact be more than 23% above 1990 levels. But by continuing to include the forest effect and the other leftover offsets from Kyoto, the government is already projecting that it will achieve its goal.

    This tells us two things. First, when it comes to climate change, the important thing is to look like you are doing something. Countries that manage that can get away with massaging the data. … The second lesson is that because honest and deep carbon cuts are staggeringly hard, achieving carbon neutrality anytime soon is an empty ambition for almost every country.”

    https://www.interest.co.nz/currencies/98488/because-honest-emissions-cuts-are-staggeringly-hard-make-achieving-carbon

  2. Formerly Ross 2

    Lomborg discusses the economic costs of trying to reduce emissions. Would we be happy to see significant cuts to health and welfare spending? What would the Courts make of that?

    A government-commissioned report by the respected New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) shows that just reducing emissions to 50% of 1990 levels in 2050 would cost NZ$28 billion ($19.2 billion) annually by 2050. For a country like New Zealand, with a population the size of Ireland or Costa Rica, that’s a big deal, about what the government spends now on its entire education and health-care system.

    And that’s only the cost of getting halfway to the carbon-neutrality target. According to the NZIER report, getting all the way will cost more than NZ$85 billion annually, or 16% of projected GDP, by 2050. That is more than last year’s entire national budget for social security, welfare, health, education, police, courts, defense, environment, and every other part of government combined. The report says Kiwis would need to accept a carbon tax of almost NZ$1,500. This is equivalent to a gasoline tax of NZ$3.50 per liter.

    • From that same report, noting that the economy would continue to grow over that same period:

      Households will be better off than they are now, but worse off than they would have been in the status quo scenario

      It's a "well, duh" that households would be worse off in this scenario than they would be under one in which they get to continue externalising a lot of costs onto future generations.

      However, that only applies as long as the climate change resulting from that externalising of costs doesn't affect the economy at all, which is not going to happen. In reality, households will be worse off under all scenarios because the status quo won't continue.

      • Formerly Ross 2.1.1

        The BERL report concludes:

        We find that even with a set of optimistic assumptions around afforestation, EV uptake, agricultural innovation and global preference changes for our dairy and sheep and beef exports, the GDP impacts of meeting ZNE targets are significant at between 4.9% ($24.6 billion) and 16.8% ($85.2 billion) lower than the status quo by 2050.

        The New Zealand economy will continue to grow under all scenarios modelled, but average real GDP growth will fall from 2.2% in the baseline to between 1.5% and 2.1% across our eight core scenario/target combinations.

        Per-household welfare, as measured by real Gross National Disposable Income, will be between $13,600 and $46,800 lower than status quo by 2050 for the ZNE scenarios. This is due to higher costs of goods and services that are pushed up by higher carbon prices, and a softer labour market outlook that reduces employment and real wages.

        The costs of meeting 2050 emissions targets fall disproportionately on lower income households. Those in the lowest income quintiles are most severely affected – over twice as much as the average household in relative terms. This may have implications for the tax and benefit system.

        So the economic cost of trying to reduce emissions may fall disproportionately on the low paid. Will the Government be willing to support the low paid? Possibly not if there is large expenditure on trying to reduce emissions, and revenue is not what the Government would like it to be to provide such support.

        • weka 2.1.1.1

          Organisations with a vested interest in the status quo economy suggest that action on CC will disproportionately affect low income people. No shit. That's a choice in a wealthy society, we don't have to do that by any means.

          I seriously doubt that the NZ economy will continue to grow under runaway climate change.

        • Psycho Milt 2.1.1.2

          So the economic cost of trying to reduce emissions may fall disproportionately on the low paid. Will the Government be willing to support the low paid?

          The economic cost of not reducing emissions (ie the consequences of climate change) may also fall disproportionately on the low-paid. As weka points out, whether we allow that to happen or not is a choice our society will make. My point is that there is no scenario that doesn't involve economic costs – imagining that sticking with the status quo won't involve any is laughably stupid wishful thinking.

          • Formerly Ross 2.1.1.2.1

            The economic cost of not reducing emissions (ie the consequences of climate change) may also fall disproportionately on the low-paid.

            But the economic cost of not reducing emissions may be relatively low in comparison to trying to reduce emissions. Remember I am talking about trying to reduce emissions which isn’t the same thing as reducing emissions. And spending large sums on trying to reduce emissions means not spending in other areas, for example health and welfare. We don’t have an unlimited budget which might explain why some countries fund drugs that we don’t fund.

  3. Bill 3

    Hate to rain on any parades (10% more of that per degree of warming btw), but…

    isn't providing food and shelter and/or what not already a fundamental "human right"? And how are those those things panning out from the perspective of a government obligation?

    The real world is over here. The world of nice sounding legislation floats over there in some weird psychotic parallel and obviously disconnected space.

    Back here in the real world, we've smashed shut and shattered the glass in that window of opportunity vis a vis global warming.

    As of right now there will be about 4m of sea level rise because of the consequences flowing from present amounts of CO2. And insects. I don't really want to think about that one, but…well if extrapolation from marine studies are valid, the reason insects are disappearing is because their eggs simply aren't very viable in a high CO2 environment. And the CO2 we've already spewed into the environment isn't going anywhere any time soon. (It'll persist for a thousand years or so)

    So…what is that "protection" going to look like?

    Even if the world "flipped a switch" and went to zero carbon today, insects would continue on their merry way of non breeding, and inundation would still be the future for the world's major river deltas/major sources of food.

    Anyone got a plan for flourishing in a world where the pollination of denuded food sources (in terms of nutrition) gets floored, and where much of the land we need in order to grow food is salted or under water?

    I mean, we can't avoid those two scenarios. We've created both of them and simply (Xmas theme coming up 😉 ) wrapped their arrival up in 'not a lot' of time. So what's the plan?

    • Robert Guyton 3.1

      " the reason insects are disappearing is because their eggs simply aren't very viable in a high CO2 environment. "

      Insects are famous for adapting rapidly to change; surely those eggs that can hatch will mature into adults whose own eggs are extra-able to hatch in high CO2 conditions…I'm puzzled why this isn't happening (if it isn't). It could be that the CO2 levels are rising too fast for insect adaptation…maybe…or perhaps that's not the cause. I don't know about this. My feeling is that insect changes would match plant and environmental changes really closely.

      • Bill 3.1.1

        The malnutrition caused across insect species by the higher carbohydrate to protein ratio in C3 plants that's induced by higher CO2 concentrations, would seem to what is affecting egg viability.

        All things being equal, I'd agree with your 'moving equilibrium' take on things. But all things are not equal. The rate at which CO2 has been increased has, I believe, no precedent.

        And like I signposted, controlled studies of an arguably parallel marine environment discovered that the fertility of zoo plankton that could easily withstand higher CO2 tanked.

        Maybe a controlled study of fruit flies would be useful. Maybe those studies have been done – I don't know.

        Regardless, the widespread implicit notion peddled by news article after journal article, that all we need do is stop using insecticides, restore habitat and turn lights out at night so that insect populations will recover by way of billions of hatching eggs….yeah, it's a pernicious form of "pretend and extend" – of denial.

  4. Ad 4

    Law courts are the final place for facts to reign over the social media tsunami.

    They sure ain't perfect.

    But they still have some force upon governments.

    After this governments' outrageous pre-Christmas dump of its draft Carbon bill days before Christmas, we just don't have the time to analyze whether it's going to be able to have force upon our government in future.

    In Teiotiota v Crown that finished up in 2017, the legislation according to the courts did not allow climate change to be a factor in gaining refugee status.

    https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/342280/climate-change-refugee-cases-rejected

    Our own country is pretty untested in this field.

    • pat 4.1

      "The Bill expressly notes that the 2050 target and interim budgets ‘are not enforceable in a court of law’ and excludes the availability of any remedy or relief if the Government fails to meet the target and/or budgets."

      https://www.transparency.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/TINZ_Submission_Zero_Carbon_Amendment_Bill.pdf

      • Ad 4.1.1

        Wrong bill Pat.

        The one they did the egregious public dump on is the Climate Change Response (Emissions Trading Reform) Amendment Bill, which is currently progressing through Parliament.

        This will restructure the NZ ETS to enable it to put a cap on emissions covered by the scheme, and to reduce that cap over time in line with our climate change targets.

        This Bill won't specify the settings of the scheme, which will be achieved through regulation and it is these regulations that are currently being consulted on.

        The proposals include:

        • The provisional emissions budget for 2021 to 2025

        • The overall limit on emissions in the NZ ETS over the period 2021 to 2025

        • How many units are auctioned into the scheme by the Government over the period 2020 to 2025

        • Whether a price floor in the NZ ETS is needed over the period 2020 to 2025

        • The level of the potential price floor over the period 2020 to 2025

        • The level of the price ceiling for activities occurring in 2020

        • How adjustments are made to unit supply to account for changes in emissions removed by forestry.

        • pat 4.1.1.1

          overarching Bill Ad….courts cannot direct gov over climate action…it is specifically excluded…I'm guessing they were considering the fact that it had already been attempted both here and abroad

    • weka 4.2

      On the brighter side we do at least have a party in government that wants to take serious action on climate change. Whatever is hampering Shaw at this time, voters can change that. Additionally, the Greens understand the need to get people on board.

      The influence of a climate election, two high profile, global activists movements targeting western industrialised countries (XR/SS4C), a range of solid local activists movements, and the legal cases make me more hopeful than I have been in the past. Social/political tippings points are something we can work with.

  5. Ad 5

    What is particularly remarkable to me is that energy use in the Netherlands flatlined for a few years, has peaked, and is now declining.

    We have a lot to learn from the Netherlands.

    • Bill 5.1

      If the decline in energy that produces CO2 was in the order of 15%+ per year, then sure, that would be chocolate fish territory. Isn't though, is it?

      So unless the aim is to learn how to fail, then there probably isn't very much to learn from the Netherlands.

      • pat 5.1.1

        and every day wasted that number increases….it aint rocket science, but it appears unrealised

      • Ad 5.1.2

        That depends on the Netherlands energy use trend line, and on how that was achieved, and how much of that can be applied here.

        • Bill 5.1.2.1

          energy use trend line? Seriously!?

          It's simple Ad. Either carbon sources of energy are dumped at a rate of about 15% per year, and year on year (or at whatever a recalculated and higher rate might be) such that we hit zero carbon from energy while there's still something remaining of a carbon budget that might deliver us a world not warmer than 2 degrees.

          You want to talk efficiency as a part of that? Fine. But account for rebound and accept that energy efficiency on its own achieves nothing in the end.

          You want to talk about biofuel/mass? You can. But not as part of a scenario that's serious about global warming.

          You could talk nuclear, except that there isn't enough time to build enough nuclear power stations even if that option's considered acceptable.

          You want to talk solar and wind etc? Can't bring renewables on line fast enough – not even close. And at the moment, the growth in fossil use is far outstripping the growth in renewables.

          You could also talk about how shipping and aviation emissions are kinda non-existent as far as governments are concerned (no-one counts them in their carbon budgets/scenarios).

          Okay. Back to your energy use trend line. It's trending and pointing to the same place – "fcked"

  6. Incognito 6

    It might be illuminating to provide some political backdrop.

    In 2015, and during the lead-up to the first court case, the Dutch Government was a so-called grand coalition of the two largest parties, which are somewhat comparable to our National and Labour parties.

    In 2017, they installed the Third Rutte Cabinet, which is a centre-right coalition government.

    A proposed four-way coalition involving the Dutch Green party (GroenLinks or GL) failed:

    On 15 May [2017], talks on the proposed four-way VVD-CDA-D66-GL coalition failed. It was reported that the main dispute concerned immigration, but GL leader Jesse Klaver cited climate issues and income differences as other issues where the parties disagreed. The end of the talks was reported to be a consensus decision, with no party blaming any others.

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