A group of 886 Dutch citizens have achieved a landmark court victory in the Netherlands, successfully suing their Government over their lack of action over the threat of climate change. Three judges found that the existing target of a 14-17 percent reduction by 2020 was unlawfully negligent. The Court ruled that the Government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, and the Government must also pay the group’s legal fees. Dennis van Berkel, the legal counsel of the group that brought the suit (Urgenda), told The Guardian the win was hugely significant:
“Before this judgment, the only legal obligations on states were those they agreed among themselves in international treaties. This is the first time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens.”
The Guardian also reported that 8,000 citizens have launched a similar court action in Belgium, and there is another possible lawsuit on foot in Norway.
However, Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Ariane Wilkinson told Lawyers Weekly that it was doubtful Australian citizens could launch a similar case, as the Netherlands’ civil law system is very different from our common law system. She said:
“Duty of care under the Australian system is different to under the Dutch system...They've essentially got particular provisions in their constitution, which were helpful for the Urgenda Foundation lawyers in making their case.”
Marjan Minnesma, the director of the Urgenda Foundation, who organized the case, gave a talk for the Environmental Defender’s Office last week. Lawyers Weekly reported that Ms Minnesma spoke about the way the case was constructed to allow different parts of the law. Particularly crucial was the concept of an “open norm”, which “allows duty of care to change over time, according to the standards of the era” and thus “allows the court to judge action (or inaction) as lawful based on the various principles, treaties and bodies of knowledge that the government has already recognized”. The Netherlands is a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and did not dispute the science of climate change in the case.
Ms Wilkinson also told Lawyers Weekly that a particularly interesting element of the Netherlands’ judgment was its recognition of “principles of fairness” which mandate that “industrialised countries have to take the lead in combating climate change and its negative impact”, as they have benefited economically from the use of fossil fuels in the past.
Professor Donald Anton, from Griffith University, also pointed out to Lawyers Weekly that another interesting factor of the case was that “the duty to exercise care was not affected by the fact that the Netherlands is not a major contributor to global emissions”. The Guardian reported that Judge Hans Hofhuis told the court:
“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts… Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”
The Dutch Government has not yet announced if they will appeal the verdict.
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