Opinion pieces

Court cases are leading the fight on climate change

As the planet burns, across Europe we are seeing young people and campaigners fight for environmental justice in the courts. In Germany, the 2019 Luisa Neubauer case made history. Germany’s supreme constitutional court ruled that the Government’s climate measures were insufficient to protect future generations after a complaint from environmentalist groups. In Portugal, young climate activists have taken a case to the European Court of Human Rights against all European countries. They argue that these countries breach their human rights by failing to make deep and urgent emission cuts, and not adequately addressing cross-border emissions. The case has been fast-tracked, meaning the courts recognise the urgency with which it should be heard.

It does not end there; courts from Belgium to the Netherlands are ruling that governments and, in some cases, companies like Dutch Shell have a responsibility to protect the rights of people and future generations from environmental harm. This week French courts backed the climate case brought by my French Greens/EFA colleague Damien Carême MEP and ruled that France has until March 2022 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced within its borders. A landmark action from Climate Case Ireland saw the Supreme Court support a motion that the then Government’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan lacked enough detail on meeting 2050 emission reduction targets. Importantly, this case has left the door open to other constitutional challenges on environmental failings. Simply put, the citizen-led revolution is inspiring. But it should not be up to our young people to seek environmental justice through the courts. Politicians must act, so that citizens are not forced to take court action.

Climate scientists are issuing urgent warnings about heatwaves, forest fires, extreme weather, and biodiversity loss. This week Pakistan saw temperatures soaring towards 50 degrees Celsius, and in Canada, records were shattered. Much of the town of Lytton in British Columbia was burnt to the ground as temperatures skyrocketed. Weather described as too hot for the human body to handle saw power cables melt in Portland, Oregon, in the United States. Climate change is happening in real time, and we all must make the change. Industry lobbyists are busy, so citizens must ensure lawmakers act on scientific evidence without delay.

In Europe, we are seeing some moves from short-haul flights to sustainable and established rail alternatives and night trains. We are seeing laws enacted on the ‘right to repair’. There are new laws on corporate environmental liability. Are they enough? Are the goals and targets of international agreements and well-meaning speeches going to turn the tide on climate change?  Recently, the European Parliament adopted an EU climate law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% between 1990 and 2030. In Ireland, a Climate Bill proposes a similar reduction over the coming decade. Such targets were unimaginable a few years ago, but we need to do more to protect our fragile earth.

The science is clear – we need robust action to reduce our emissions and reduce global warming to less than 2 to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On 14th July, the European Commission launches the mammoth ‘Fit for 55’ package, a whole series of draft directives and regulations aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors by 2030. If we want Europe to deliver on climate and the environment, then ‘Fit for 55’ must be up to the task. Weak laws with unambitious targets overturned by stronger court decisions are redundant and waste what little time we have left in the fight against climate change. As MEPs, we will fine-tune these draft laws over the coming months to ensure they are fit for purpose. The lobbyists and vested interests are always close to hand, and we must ensure they do not control the agenda. I am proud that my political grouping, The Greens/ European Free Alliance, ensures that any meetings our MEPs hold with lobbyists are recorded on a transparency register.

It is inspiring to see such levels of engagement and activism in tackling climate change – especially from young people. I hope they continue to hold politicians accountable. However, lawmakers must be ambitious so that court actions are no longer needed to save our planet. This will not be easy, but the transformation of our economy and our industries to a greener future is the only option if we are to pass on to our children a planet that is in a fit and healthy state.


July 6, 2021

first published

The Journal

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