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Latest 09 April 2024

European Court of Human Rights: States must take ‘immediate’ climate action

Original images: Steve Allen / Shutterstock, NASA

A historic ruling means that governments must take concrete steps to tackle the climate crisis and set out credible targets to reach net zero.

The Strasbourg Court has ruled that the Swiss Confederation is violating the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to tackle climate change.

The judgment was handed down alongside two other climate cases: one brought by a French MEP, the other by a group of young people from Portugal. Both of these were ruled inadmissible on procedural grounds.

The successful case was brought by four older women and a Swiss association of women over 64, KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, focused on tackling the climate crisis.

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The applicants argued that the Swiss authorities’ failure to tackle the climate emergency is harming their lives, living conditions, and health. They argued that this puts the Swiss Confederation in breach of its obligations under the Convention to protect the right to life (Article 2) and to ensure respect for their private and family lives (Article 8).

The court emphasised that it wasn’t its job alone to take action over the climate crisis, which it called “one of the most pressing issues of our times”. But democracy is more than the will of the majority, and governments cannot simply ignore the rule of law, the court continued. Given the “widely acknowledged inadequacy of past state action to combat climate change globally” and the risk this poses to human rights, the court could not ignore its role in enforcing human rights.

In all three cases, governments argued that because climate change is a global problem, no one state could be held responsible for its impact. The court rejected this argument, saying that “each state has its own share of responsibilities” and could not “evade its responsibility by pointing to the responsibility of other states.”

In this landmark ruling, the court said that states must take concrete steps to prevent “a rise in global average temperature beyond levels capable of producing serious and irreversible adverse effects on human rights,” especially the right to private and family life and home under Article 8 of the Convention.

States must take measures for “substantial and progressive reduction” of their emissions, the court continued, with a view to reaching net neutrality within, in principle, the next three decades. To make this possible and avoid placing a “disproportionate burden on future generations”, they need to take action immediately, putting in place credible targets for reductions along the way.

These measures must not only be put into binding regulatory frameworks by each country, the court insisted, but also must be properly implemented. The court said that in future cases it will consider whether states are in breach of their obligations against a suite of factors listed in the judgment – such as whether the state has kept its emission targets updated in line with the best available evidence. And the court declared that it’s not enough for states to take steps to reduce emissions, they must also tackle the climate emergency’s most severe and imminent consequences.

While the court decided not to consider the applicants’ Article 2 claim, it did find a violation of Article 8. The court found critical gaps in Swiss regulations, including a failure to quantify reductions in emissions, and that the Swiss Confederation has missed past reduction targets. “By failing to act in good time and in an appropriate manner”, the court said, the Swiss government was in violation of Article 8 of the Convention. The Swiss government must, therefore, change its climate policies in order to cease violating human rights law.

The court also found that there had been a violation of Article 6. When Swiss courts rejected the KilmaSeniorinnen complaint, this amounted to a breach of their right of access to the court. This is likely to have a significant impact on future challenges, as it underscores the importance of access to justice and the vital role domestic courts have to play in ensuring human rights are protected from the impacts of the climate crisis.

The significance of this ruling is difficult to overstate and is likely to form the foundation of many future legal challenges – including in the UK, where courts must take account of decisions from the European Court of Human Rights. When Good Law Project successfully challenged the UK Government’s net zero strategy – and the courts declared it unlawful – the human rights arguments we made were rejected because the Strasbourg court had not yet gone so far. Now that the court has recognised the important role human rights have to play in addressing the climate crisis, it should be easier to hold states accountable for their climate vandalism.

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