Church and Court Condemn CO2
A court in The Hague has ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions by at least 25 percent within five years, in a landmark ruling expected to cause ripples around the world.
The Nelson Daily Green Up Columnist Michael Jessen has his take on the ruling by three judges that said the Dutch government plans to cut emissions by just 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were unlawful, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change.
What a bad week for greenhouse gas emissions.
And as summer temperatures reach deadly levels around the world, the medical journal The Lancet has called on governments to enact policy responses to protect public health.
In a comprehensive encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be), the pope called on all persons to redefine their notion of progress, reduce consumption, and accept their responsibility for their fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
Pope Francis described an ecological crisis with climate change, water shortages, and species reduction posing undeniable risks to humanity.
“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” he bluntly stated.
In the Netherlands, 886 Dutch citizens decided to take their government to court over the slow progress the country was making in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and after two months of deliberations, the court has ruled in favour of the environmental group Urgenda Foundation, which filed the lawsuit.
The Hague District Court has ordered the government to cut emissions by at least 25% by 2020, in a case environmentalists hope will set a precedent for other countries.
Current projections have the Netherlands achieving a reduction of 17% at most by 2020.
“The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment,” the court said in its judgement.
“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlandsshould take the lead in this.”
Government has duty to prevent harm
In a rare use of “Tort Law”, the Urgenda Foundation had argued the government had a duty to prevent harm to its citizens and the environment from climate change.
Tort Law is a bodyof rights, obligations, and remedies that is applied by courts in civil proceedings to provide relief for persons who have suffered harm from the wrongful acts of others.
Jasper Teulings from Greenpeace called it a “landmark case”.
“It shifts the whole debate. Other cases are being brought in Belgium, the Philippines. This is the start of a wave of climate litigation,” he added.
In Belgium, 8, 000 citizens arepreparing for a similar court case, and another lawsuit is possible in Norway. Although the case is only binding within the Netherlands, lawyers say that it will inspire lawyers and judges considering similar cases in many other countries.
Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School told The Guardianthe victory “will embolden lawyers in other countries, where active judiciaries are willing to issue rulings based on constitutional and human rights doctrines.”
The case was initiated in November 2012 with a letter to the government asking for action and a call for ‘crowd pleading’ in which Dutch citizens could support the case and join as co-plaintiffs. A year later on 20 November 2013, Urgenda together with 900 co-plaintiffs filed the case against the Dutch government. On 14 April 2015, the district court in The Hague heard the arguments of the parties.
On 30 March 2015 the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligationswere launched, formulated by an international group of eminent jurists, including High Court judges, law professors and advocates from countries such as Brazil, China, India, the US and the Netherlands. The Oslo principles hold that regardless of the existence of international agreements, governments already have a legal obligation to avert the harmful effects of climate change, based on existing international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.
Climate disruption has health risks
The first Lancet Climate Change Commission – published in 2009 – labelled climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” In its latest 2015 report, the commission says “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”
The commission recommended governments take 10 policy actions over the next five years, including a rapid phase out of the use of coal, developing an energy efficient building stock, establishing an international carbon pricing mechanism, quickly expanding access to renewable energies, and transitioning to a decarbonized global economy.
“We see climate change as a major health issue and that it is often neglected in the policy debates,” said Professor Anthony Costello, director of the UCL Institute of Global Health and co-chair of the commission.
“On our current trajectory, going to 4C [of warming] is somewhere we don’t want to go and that has very serious and potentially catastrophic effects for human health and human survival and could undermine all of the last half-century’s gains. We see that as a medical emergency because the action we need to do to stop that in its tracks and get us back onto a 2C trajectory or less requires action now – and action in the next ten years – otherwise the game could be over.”
More than 1,100 people died in a heat wave in India last month and the current death toll in Pakistan is nearing 800 as temperatures reached the mid-40s Celsius.
There are solutions
But there is hope for the world if only it would reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, the major contributor of CO2 emissions which are warming the globe.
Seizing on the opportunities presented by a changing climate, The Solutions Project has formulated plans for the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan to become 100% reliant on renewable energies by 2050.
As a society, we have a moral obligation to act quickly to mitigate the harmful effects of climate disruption. Now one court in the world has decreed that we have a legal responsibility to do so.
We also know that we can build a zero carbon economy in 35 years. Let’s develop the political will and get on with the task.
Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based sustainability consultant and a member of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. He can be reached by email at email@example.com