Dutch government considers appeal historic Urgenda climate case
Earlier this year, campaign group the Urgenda Foundation sued the Dutch government for failure to tackle climate change, and won. Judges ruled the government must do more to protect people, and gave it until 2020 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 levels. Now, the government has said it will appeal. Under Dutch law, it could even ask for the case to be re-opened, giving the government and Urgenda a chance to make new arguments.
What was the Urgenda case about?
Urgenda’s goal was for the court to order The Netherlands to cut emissions by up to 40% on 1990 levels by 2020. On 14 April 2015, the district court in The Hague heard the arguments of both sides, and the verdict was released on 24 June 2015.
The court ruled in favour of Urgenda, ordering the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 levels by 2020. The government’s previous plan had been to reduce emissions by 17%, a weak commitment compared to the global norm for developed countries of 25 – 40% emissions reduction by 2020. The court agreed with Urgenda that The Netherlands was not doing enough to avert climate change, and was failing in its duty of care to its people.
The case was the first in Europe where citizens held a state responsible for lack of action on climate change.
On what grounds is the Dutch government appealing?
The Dutch government is arguing that the court overstepped its remit when it ruled that more must be done to cut emissions and protect citizens. Under Dutch law, it could even ask for the case to be re-opened, giving the government and Urgenda a chance to make new arguments.
In a letter to parliament, Environment Minister Wilma Mansveld said: “The government is seeking to determine how much control judges can have over the future policies of the state.”
Judges in the original case considered this issue. They noted: “The main point of this dispute concerns if allowing Urgenda’s main claim … would constitute an interference with the distribution of powers in our democratic system.”
Courts are responsible for the legal protection of citizens against the state, so supporters argue the ruling is fair, and a major step forward in the fight against climate change.
What will happen if the government wins the appeal?
If the government wins in the final court, it may not have to comply with the original ruling to cut emissions by 25% by 2020. However, the outcome of the appeal depends on which court the government goes to. If it goes to the Dutch appeal court and wins, Urgenda can re-appeal to challenge the decision. If the government goes to the Dutch equivalent of the UK Supreme Court, the decision is final. Legally, the government must comply with the original judgment until it is overturned. It has confirmed it will, so ministers must put in place policies to cut emissions now. Even if Urgenda loses in the long term, it will have influenced Dutch policy in the interim, which is an undisputed positive.
What will happen if the government loses the appeal?
The Dutch government will have to continue to take measures to limit emissions to at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. We could potentially see the Netherlands take world-leading action to decarbonise its economy.
What is Urgenda’s chance of winning?
We are not Dutch lawyers, so can’t comment on Urgenda’s prospects of success, but the campaigners are confident of success. The case draws welcome attention to the ways in which climate change impacts upon a range of government responsibilities to citizens, in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
What is the timeline for this appeal?
The Dutch government has until 24 September 2015 to appeal. When the appeal would be heard depends on the parties and the court, but judges could choose to expedite the case.
Could a case like Urgenda’s be brought in other countries and what would be the chance of winning?
A similar case is already being brought in Belgium, and could feasibly be brought in many other countries. As with Urgenda, it is likely that the claimant would be aiming to develop the law to address climate change responsibilities, so it’s difficult to generalise about the chances of success. However, the Urgenda case aims to build on established legal principles applied in many countries, and so there could be some solid foundations for other claims taking a similar approach.
Does this case short-circuit the commitments governments will make at the UN climate pact in October?
Urgenda’s argument relies on the current obligations of the Dutch government to its population, which Urgenda says the state is failing to fulfil. It is no defence for the government to postpone compliance with those responsibilities in anticipation of a UN agreement which may or may not be reached.