When activism takes the stand: Urgenda Vs the Netherlands

By Alexandros Kassapis, GLOBUS Correspondent

Would you file a lawsuit against your government for failing to take sufficient actions for fighting climate change? This is the story of the Urgenda Foundation and 886 individuals who took the Netherlands to court because of climate change.  

On 20 December 2019, the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch non-profit organisation aiming for a fast transition towards a sustainable society, concluded a seven-year legal battle for the Dutch government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25%, compared with 1990 levels, by the end of 2020. Heavy applause and celebration ensued among the hundreds of plaintiffs involved and climate activists in all inhabited corners of the world. The case hearing commenced in the District Court of The Hague in 2015, before launching to the Court of Appeal in 2018, and finally reaching the Supreme Court in 2019. The question put before the Supreme Court; did the state have a legal duty towards Urgenda to achieve additional reduction of emissions? 

The court first recognised that there is scientific consensus towards the fact that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases can cause climate change, which will be especially destructive if the change is larger than 2°C compared to the baseline year of 1850 (with 1 degrees Celsius having already been surpassed).  To avoid this level of temperature change, the court reasoned that immediate worldwide reduction of gas emissions is required. It asserted that industrialised countries need to reduce emissions by 25% to 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Following its current policies, the best scenario for the Netherlands is achieving a 17% reduction – a disappointingly low level compared to what’s needed. The Court, therefore, ruled that the Netherlands reduce emissions by 25% compared to 1990 levels, based on equity, precautionary, and sustainability principles.  

The court interestingly underlined that no country can hide behind the argument that its efforts alone will not determine whether dangerous climate change is to be averted, suggesting that The Netherlands, as one of the world’s wealthiest countries, should be leading the way. Further still, the judges ruled that the cost of Dutch emission reduction is “neither impossible nor reasonably unacceptable”, considering that the severity and the extent of the climate crisis render the reduction of emissions necessary.  

On April 24 2020, the Dutch government announced its plan to comply with the historic ruling of the Dutch Supreme Court in Urgenda v The Netherlands. Despite the significant delay, the government set out a plan alongside a budget of 3 billion euros to aid emission reduction efforts. Remarkably, about thirty of the measures within the plan are taken from Urgenda’s ‘54 Climate Solutions Plan’. Notably, the measure amounting to the largest decrease of emissions is reducing coal-fired power station capacity. Other measures include reducing livestock numbers, managing forests more sustainably, and adopting energy-saving measures for households.  

Urgenda rightfully constitutes a landmark case overflowing with optimism. An industrialised country will fulfil its share to avert dangerous climate change. Dutch citizens will be soon enjoying lower energy bills, increased biodiversity, and cleaner air.  Attention should, however, be drawn to the fact that the landmark decision would not had been made but for the Dutch legal system’s ease of access and political independence of judges. Respect for the rule of law has been integral in the decision and demonstrates an ideal example of governance for the international community. Hopefully, the more than 1500 climate lawsuits that are currently active globally as of May 2020, will have the same luck as a claim filed by a small foundation and 886 Dutch activists.  

To watch a video of the final judgment of the Supreme Court, click here.  

Header Image by Pixabay

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