Dutch Court Orders Government to Meet Climate Targets (6/25)     Print Email

By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for Europolitics

Climate change activists are celebrating this week's landmark ruling by a court in the Netherlands requiring the Dutch government to make better progress in meeting its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite being a leader in reducing emissions in the 1990s, the Dutch government has slipped behind with its renewable targets since then. It is on a course to lower emissions to 17% below 1990 levels by 2020, instead of the 25% it is supposed to achieve.

The judgement breaks new ground, being based not on climate legislation nor international treaties but rather on tort law, which requires governments to refrain from doing harm. The Netherlands is one of the most low-lying countries in the world, so rises in sea-levels caused by global warming can have potentially devastating effects.

The case was brought by a climate action advocacy group called Urgenda. Similar cases are pending in courts in Belgium and Norway. This could become an increasingly popular avenue for activists to pursue.

In March a group of experts - a mix of judges, law professors and environmentalists - adopted the Oslo Principles, an 8-page document spelling out the various legal bases for obliging governments to tackle climate change, including tort, human rights and constitutional law. The document was cited in the Dutch case.

The ruling comes as the world's nations gear up for the United Nations climate conference in Paris in December where they aim to conclude a new agreement that outlines targets and actions for the post-2020 era.

In March, the EU and United States submitted their targets to the UN secretariat. The EU proposes to cut its emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, while the US is pledging to lower its emissions to between 26% and 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

It is doubtful that the U.S. will sign on to a treaty if it is made legally binding as this would require it to be ratified in the Senate by two-thirds majority, which would be very difficult to achieve. Congress has never ratified a climate treaty nor enacted climate-specific legislation.

US environmental groups will be buoyed by the ruling. They are already filing case in US courts, with some success. Their cases often cite the 1990 US Clean Air Act which, under a 2007 Supreme Court ruling authorizes - but does not oblige - the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

On June 10, responding to a court ruling, the EPA announced it was considering doing this for emissions from aircraft engines, a sector that has eluded regulation thus far. The EPA has already imposed emissions limits for cars and trucks.

Activists will be keeping their fingers crossed that the Dutch case will have reverberations across the globe, prodding judges to consider what governments' legal obligations are to address climate change.