In Unprecedented Case, Dutch Court Sides With Climate Activists Who Sued Their Country for Emissions

Climate change
The country, the court wrote, could not “hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts.” Jo Yong-Hak/REUTERS

A judge at the Hague District Court ruled in favor of a group of nearly 900 Dutch citizens on Wednesday, who sued the country of the Netherlands for failing to adequately protect its citizens from the dangers of climate change. Now, the Netherlands will be legally obligated to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 percent over the next five years. Previously, the country planned to cut emissions only 14 to 17 percent by 2020, The Guardian reports.

According to Urgenda, the legal group that organized the plaintiffs, this is the first case to use the law of torts—a legal duty to refrain from causing harm—and human rights law to bring a climate change suit against a country. 

The plaintiffs had sued the country for “knowingly contributing” to the now all-but-guaranteed 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit global temperature rise by 2100, which U.N. reports deemed the threshold for “dangerous” levels of warming. The plaintiffs argued that the Netherlands was violating both the principle that nations not pollute to the extent that they damage other nations, as well as the European Union’s “precautionary principle,” prohibiting states from actions that have the potential to cause harm, even if the nature of the harm is unknown.

“Before this judgment, the only legal obligations on states were those they agreed among themselves in international treaties,” Dennis van Berkel, a lawyer for Urgenda, told The Guardian. “This is the first a time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens. That must inform the reduction commitments [at the upcoming U.N. meeting in] Paris because if it doesn’t, they can expect pressure from courts in their own jurisdictions.”

In its opinion, the court agreed that the Netherlands’ prior emissions plan was unlawful, determining that “the possibility of damages for [the plaintiffs], including current and future generations of Dutch nationals, is so great and concrete that given its duty of care, the state must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change,”  The New York Times reports.

The country, the court wrote, could not “hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts.”

The court’s decision noted that “human rights law and environmental law are mutually reinforcing,” and that the state had a “duty of care” that applies to the “livability of the country and the protection and improvement of the living environment.”

The Hague District Court is one of the Netherlands' 19 district courts and is known for handing down decisions of international significance. The Dutch government still has the opportunity to appeal the court's decision, but activists and academics say the ruling is likely to open up the global legal field to future climate cases.

“I think this will encourage lawyers in several other countries to see if they have opportunities in their domestic courts to pursue similar litigation,” Michael Gerrard, a law professor and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told the Times.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the country legally obligated to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 percent over the next five years as Denmark. It is actually the Netherlands.