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Are Courts Best Equipped to Address Climate Change?

Flooding in Europe, heat domes looming over North America and ongoing fires along the American West Coast have prompted a further investigation into the best course of action for tackling climate change. According to the United Nations, the global average of CO2 emissions will far exceed the Paris Climate Agreement's 1.5 Celsius temperature change by 2100 by 2030 alone, producing over 56 gigatons of CO2 annually.

Reactions to climate change have manifested in mass protests like those in September 2019 during Global Week for Future through to climate change legislation and intergovernmental communication like the COP26 Conference taking place in Glasgow later this month. We must assess what course of action is best equipped to stimulate effective climate action.

Recent trends in climate change mobilisation have involved an increase in the frequency of lawsuits in international court systems. From the Netherlands and Germany to the United States, these lawsuits have begun to force governments and private corporations to take responsibility for carbon emissions.

Recent Legislation

Making headway with climate legislation, in the 2019 case Netherlands v. Urgenda, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Netherlands must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the end of 2020 in order to comply with United Nations global temperature increase of under two degrees Celsius.

Ruled to be a violation of both foreign and domestic agreements, specifically the European Convention on Human Rights, the Supreme Court declared climate emissions and climate change place an unfair burden on the youngest generation. The Court intervened on the basis of ECHR Article 2 (the right to life) and Article 8 (the right to respect for private life and family life) in a new move toward reducing climate change.

The ECHR Article 2 outlines the right to life as:

“Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save the execution of a sentence of a court…”

Dutch non-profit organisation Urgenda additionally argues that the Netherlands violates Article 8, which states:

“Right to respect for private and family life. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence…”

International Trends

At the start of 2021, a French petition to reduce carbon emissions garnered over 2.3 million signatures, breaking records for the most widely supported petition in the history of the country. With evidence from around Western France of coastal erosion, extreme weather events and water scarcity, the lawsuit referred to domestic and international commitments like the Paris Climate Accords to stay within an emission threshold.

In April 2021, two farmers filed an official lawsuit against the Czech government, citing their experiences with acute environmental anxiety as a result of water scarcity, an astute loss of biodiversity and a violation of the human right to pursue life. The Czech Republic, which repeatedly exceeds its “fair share” of global carbon emissions, is in current deliberation over where the state is liable for domestic emissions.

Does Legislation Help?

In a recent study by the London School of Economics, analysts found that on a global average, new laws reduce yearly carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 0.8 percent in the first three years and by 1.8 percent in the long term. Although suing a government in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions appears symbolic, and is currently the most direct plan of action, actual legislation will not slow carbon emissions at a fast-enough rate.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of legislation does vary by country and region. Spain and Brazil have each produced over 28 pieces of climate legislation that limit pollutants. Climate change scientist Fankhauser shares that, in particular, New Zealand and Sweden’s emission laws are “good because they have an explicit target; they’ve put into law what the emissions objective is". Thus the more specific and targeted a country’s emission laws are, the easier they are to enact.

In short, legislation binds not only states but also private corporations to adhere to climate regulation which manifests in tangible benefits. However, as the study from LSE cites, the effects are slow-rolling and minute.


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