Jun 27, 2015 by


In April I wrote about a landmark Dutch lawsuit on climate action that, if successful, would put the world’s governments on notice. Today the Hague District Court ruled in favor of the Urgenda Foundation and its nearly 900 co-plaintiffs, ordering the government to reduce its greenhouse gases by at least 25 percent (compared with 1990 levels) by the end of 2020.

The court’s findings are extraordinary and could set precedent in cases around the world.

The full verdict can be read in English here, but in my view, these are some of the court’s most powerful findings:

On mitigation versus adaptation:

The court emphasises that the [State’s duty of care] first and foremost should concern mitigation measures, as adaptation measures will only allow the State to protect its citizens from the consequences of climate change to a limited level. If the current greenhouse gas emissions continue in the same manner, global warming will take such a form that the costs of adaptation will become disproportionately high. Adaptation measures will therefore not be sufficient to protect citizens against the aforementioned consequences in the long term. The only effective remedy against hazardous climate change is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

On fairness, including obligations towards future generations, and the precautionary approach:

Due to this principle of fairness, the State, in choosing measures, will also have to take account of the fact that the costs are to be distributed reasonably between the current and future generations. If according to the current insights it turns out to be cheaper on balance to act now, the State has a serious obligation, arising from due care, towards future generations to act accordingly. Moreover, the State cannot postpone taking precautionary measures based on the sole reason that there is no scientific certainty yet about the precise effect of the measures. However, a cost-benefit ratio is allowed here. Finally, the State will have to base its actions on the principle of “prevention is better than cure”.

On economics:

It has neither been argued, nor has it become evident that the State has insufficient financial means to realise higher reduction measures. It can also not be concluded that from a macro economic point of view there are obstructions to choosing a higher emission reduction level for 2020.

On the fact that size doesn’t matter:

The fact that the amount of the Dutch emissions is small compared to other countries does not affect the obligation to take precautionary measures in view of the State’s obligation to exercise care. After all, it has been established that any anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission, no matter how minor, contributes to an increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere and therefore to hazardous climate change.

On the need for rich countries to take the lead:

The court takes into account that in view of a fair distribution the Netherlands, like the other Annex I countries, has taken the lead in taking mitigation measures and has therefore committed to a more than proportionte [sic] contribution to reduction. Moreover, it is beyond dispute that the Dutch per capita emissions are one of the highest in the world.

On competitiveness:

It is also unclear if and if so, to what extent, on a global level a stricter climate policy in the Netherlands will have any sort of effect on the position of businesses (including multinationals) compared to their nationally and internationally operating competitors. This argument is therefore rejected.

On cumulative emissions (and the need for a steep decline ASAP):

Urgenda is correct in arguing that the postponement of mitigation efforts, as currently supported by the State (less strict reduction between the present day and 2030 and a significant reduction as of 2030), will cause a cumulation effect, which will result in higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in comparison to a more even procentual or linear decrease of emissions starting today. A higher reduction target for 2020 (40%, 30% or 25%) will cause lower total, cumulated greenhouse gas emissions across a longer period of time in comparison with the target of less than 20% chosen by the State. The court agrees with Urgenda that by choosing this reduction path, even though it is also aimed at realising the 2°C target, will in fact make significant contributions to the risk of hazardous climate change and can therefore not be deemed as a sufficient and acceptable alternative to the scientifically proven and acknowledged higher reduction path of 25-40% in 2020.

This legal decision represents a moment of sanity in our insanely ineffective efforts to date to address the climate crisis. Let’s hope, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, that there are many more such moments to come.

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