Tessa Khan: “Litigation is a powerful tool in the environmental crisis” | life and style


AAt key moments in history, courts around the world have helped accelerate social change – vindicating the claims of people fighting to end slavery, racial segregation and gender inequality . It is therefore not surprising that they are called upon to help solve the greatest social and environmental crisis of our time: the climate emergency.

The case against the government of the Netherlands powerfully illustrates what climate litigation can accomplish. In 2015, The Hague District Court issued a groundbreaking ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens, arguing that the government was failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough. tight. The court agreed that the government’s actions were illegal and ordered it to reduce the Netherlands’ emissions by 2020. This decision was upheld by an appeals court and ultimately by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in 2019.

It’s hard to overstate the impact: in response, the government has taken huge steps to cut emissions, including closing or drastically reducing the capacity of coal-fired power stations and overseeing 3 billion euros of low carbon investments. The first judgment also sparked public debate that led to a new climate change law. But the value of the litigation was just as clear in the hushed and crowded courtroom in The Hague. People waited for the highest court in the land to validate what they instinctively knew to be true: that governments cannot know the risks of climate change and willfully ignore them.

Urgenda’s case has inspired communities and organizations around the world to hold governments and big polluters legally accountable for their contribution to the climate crisis. From the Philippines to Canada to Colombia, people are demanding accountability for decades of broken promises. Governments signed an international treaty to fight climate change almost 30 years ago, and fossil fuel companies have known that since at least the 1970s, the product they sell has directly led to global warming. Last month, we supported a landmark case challenging the Irish government’s inadequate emissions reduction plan, which led the Supreme Court to ask the government to come up with a new, more ambitious one.

Lawsuits are not a panacea. It takes significant public vigilance and pressure to ensure that judgments translate into real change. But litigation is one of the most powerful tools we have to claim our rights and clarify the stakes – and the stakes have never been higher.

Tessa Khan is a climate change lawyer, co-director of the Climate Litigation Network and a member of Urgenda’s legal team


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