Court tells Dutch government to cut emissions a further 8 percent

Roughly 26% of the Netherlands and 21% of its population are located below sea level.Roughly 26% of the Netherlands and 21% of its population are located below sea level. Wikimedia CommonsIn a ruling that appears more symbolic than enforceable, the Hague District Court said today that the government had a responsibility to protect its citizens from “looming” climate threats, and ordered them to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. The Dutch government, however, said it already has policies in effect that will cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020, a difference of 8 percent. The ruling, read aloud by Presiding Judge Hans Hofhuis, was met by activist applause inside the courtroom.

The Dutch court agreed with the plaintiffs that the “government has a legal obligation to protect its people against looming dangers” because 26 percent of the Netherlands are below sea level. Using the precautionary principle as the basis for the suit, the plaintiffs argued that their country was unusually at risk from rising sea levels due to global warming.

Currently, sea level rise has not sped up as many of the computer models have predicted, and it has largely remained the same since recordkeeping began. There has also been an unprecedented lack of warming over the last 18.7 years, Arctic ice is now higher than 2006, and Antarctic sea ice has reached record levels. Sea level rise was predicted to increase as polar ice melts, though that doesn’t appear imminent or looming.

A Dutch environmental group called the Urgenda Foundation argued the case on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens, and its director said the ruling could “lay the foundations for similar cases around the world.” Even Greenpeace chimed in and said the ruling would be “a game-changer in the fight against climate change.” Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda, said “This is a great victory – the judge said exactly what we wanted and had the courage and wisdom to say to the government ‘you have a duty of care toward your citizens.'” How that ‘care’ will be carried out is still a mystery to both parties.

The court wrote in a statement that, “The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment.” Many countries around the world have decided that “global temperatures should stay below a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6° F) rise compared to pre-industrial times.”

The 2 degrees Celsius limit is a hotly contested number that some believe is based on an arbitrary number and that Earth’s history shows that warmer climates produce rich ecosystems, abundant life forms, and a profusion of diverse, adaptable bio-regions across the planet. Even so, the court said the government had a duty to prevent temperatures from rising as it might pose an undue burden on Dutch citizens.

The court also didn’t say how the government should cut the additional 8 percent in CO2 emissions as its “unclear how the court can enforce its ruling.” According to another Dutch judge Peter Blok, the court has the “power to impose fines on those failing to carry out its orders, but it has never used such powers against the government.” Even the Urgenda foundation did not request the court take such action, he said.

Climate activists are already using the narrow ruling in this case as a precedent in their upcoming suits they have against governments, the oil and gas industry, and Arctic drilling. Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe, told the AP: “We hope this kind of legal action will be replicated in Europe and around the world, pushing governments who are dragging their feet on climate action to scale up their efforts.”

The Dutch government has not said whether it will appeal the ruling to a higher court. The Ministry for Infrastructure and Environment, which oversees emission-reduction programs, did not immediately comment on the issue. The ruling is similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the EPA could regulate so-called greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, but did not tell the government how or how much to cut.

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