5 key impacts of the Swiss women's climate victory at Europe's Human Rights Court - Hindustan Times
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5 key impacts of the Swiss women's climate victory at Europe's Human Rights Court

Apr 11, 2024 07:04 PM IST

The ECtHR April 9 ruling enhances the legal basis for climate action across Europe, providing a solid foundation for challenging inadequate climate policies

The Swiss women's victory, KlimaSeniorinnen or Senior Women for Climate Protection, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on April 9 marks a crucial moment in history that intersects climate policy with human rights law.

Members of Swiss association Senior Women for Climate Protection react after the announcement of decisions after a hearing of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to decide in three separate cases if states are doing enough in the face of global warming in rulings that could force them to do more, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on April 9, 2024. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Members of Swiss association Senior Women for Climate Protection react after the announcement of decisions after a hearing of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to decide in three separate cases if states are doing enough in the face of global warming in rulings that could force them to do more, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on April 9, 2024. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)(AFP)

This ruling, affirming the connection between climate change impacts and human rights violations, calls for governments' obligations to shield citizens from global warming's detrimental impacts. It highlights the imperative for action on the climate crisis and brings to the fore the judiciary's role in enforcing environmental policy adherence.

KlimaSeniorinnen, a group of over 2.000 women aged 65 and older, took on the Swiss Government before the ECtHR, claiming that their rights were being harmed by the impacts of the climate crisis and that Switzerland’s alleged weak effort to reduce emissions violates its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Also read: Swiss seniors win big at International court, emissions reduction targets for European countries set

The verdict that followed, in favour of the senior women, directed all European countries to come up with science-based targets that are aligned with the Paris Agreement's aim to limit the increase in global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2050. The precedent bears the potential to shape future climate litigation and propels other nations, beyond Europe as well, toward more rigorous compliance with global commitments, especially those stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

Here, we look at five major takeaways from this ruling.

1. Setting a legal milestone in climate litigation

For the first time in history, a court has directly linked climate action—or the lack thereof—to the infringement of human rights, specifically the right to life and health due to the adverse effects of climate change. This ruling serves as a crucial precedent for future climate litigation, potentially opening the door for similar legal challenges across Europe and globally.

The legal accountability of governments to take significant measures against climate change to protect their citizens' rights is a major standpoint. “While the judgement directly influences European countries bound by the Convention (ECHR), its ramifications extend globally. It serves as a crucial reference point for courts worldwide in interpreting the human rights obligations of states regarding climate action,” said Joana Setzer, associate professor, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a research centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK.

2. Raising the bar for governmental climate actions

The ruling sends a clear message to European nations: current climate efforts are insufficient. Governments are now compelled to strengthen their climate policies and ensure that they align with science-based targets that are consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. “The Court's verdict was loud and clear: governments need to curb emissions rapidly to protect the human rights of all generations. The inspirational efforts of senior Swiss women, but also young Portuguese people and Damien Carême, have ushered in a new era for European climate action,” said Laurence Tubiana, chief executive officer, European Climate Foundation.

This verdict further emphasises the need for effective climate action plans that go beyond current efforts, ensuring that policies are not only ambitious but also actionable and measurable. “Governments in Europe are now under legal scrutiny to bolster their climate commitments and implement policies that significantly reduce carbon emissions,” added Tubiana.

3. Ruling reinforces Paris Agreement Goals

The EtCHR order signals a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change, explicitly connecting the dots between environmental policy and human rights. This ruling underlines a global commitment akin to the Paris Agreement's objectives, pushing governments to adopt more stringent climate measures. It mandates nations to recalibrate their environmental strategies, ensuring they are in harmony with the ambitious goal of capping global warming at 1.5°C.

Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel, Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch environmental group currently fighting a climate litigation case against the Netherlands government, said “Based on the ruling, all European countries need to have proper laws in place that ensure that global warming is limited to 1.5°C. Now countries need to determine new national carbon budgets that are in line with the latest science and 1.5°C warming limit.”

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, represents a global accord within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), aimed at limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. It signifies a collective endeavour to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries in these efforts, establishing a framework for global climate action.

4. Empowering grassroots climate activism

The win amplifies the voices of communities and activists fighting for climate justice, demonstrating that legal pathways are viable for challenging governmental inaction on climate change. It empowers individuals and groups to hold their governments accountable for climate commitments, inspiring a wave of civic engagement and activism.

“The victory of the KlimaSeniorinnen provides a template for how ordinary citizens, even those who may seem to have the odds stacked against them, can effectuate significant environmental and policy changes through the courts,” said Dr Anjal Prakash, IPCC author and research director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business.

5. Verdict encourages collaborative climate efforts globally

The ECtHR ruling proposes increased international cooperation and shared strategies for climate change mitigation. By affirming the necessity for countries to align their environmental policies with human rights obligations, the ruling necessitates a more collaborative global approach towards achieving the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement.

“It sets a precedent that could encourage countries to work together more closely, sharing technologies, strategies, and policies to reduce emissions and protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change. This collaborative effort is crucial for the global response to climate change, highlighting the interconnectedness of nations in addressing a problem,” said Dr Prakash.

Ensuring Compliance: The Binding Nature of ECtHR Rulings

The European Court of Human Rights holds a unique position in the international legal landscape, with its rulings being binding on the countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. While the ECtHR itself cannot enforce its decisions, the Council of Europe can monitor the implementation of judgments and apply pressure on countries directly to comply. Non-compliance with ECtHR rulings can lead to political and legal repercussions for member states, including being subject to infringement proceedings. The rulings have also set a precedent for other international courts to follow. Currently, there are climate change cases ongoing at the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

“We now have a clear affirmation that states bear a positive obligation to shield their citizens from climate change and to safeguard their welfare, including through establishing a binding regulatory framework at the national level. This ruling is pivotal for our comprehension of the effectiveness and execution of close to 30 climate change framework laws throughout Europe,” said Catherine Higham, Policy Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

This judgement sets a legally binding precedent that national courts within the Council of Europe's jurisdiction can reference in future climate litigation cases. It enhances the legal basis for climate action across Europe, providing a solid foundation for challenging inadequate climate policies and advocating for more aggressive measures to combat climate change.

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