Last week, ten families filed a legal action in European court against the European Union, arguing that the government is violating their fundamental rights by failing to act on climate change.
The families — who hail from Portugal, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Kenya, and Fiji — all claim to have suffered financial or personal losses from climate change. One family from Portugal lost a significant portion of their family lands in an October 2017 forest fire, which was made worse by unusually hot and dry conditions. Another family, in France, is no longer able to sustain their lavender businesses — which has been in the family for three generations — due to the impacts of climate change.
The legal action was brought against the government of the European Union even though some of the litigants live in countries outside of the EU because the action claims that individuals “are entitled to invoke EU fundamental rights to health,
occupation, property and equal treatment that are violated because of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions from EU territory.”
The case is being pursued in Europe’s second highest court, and seeks to compel the European Union to adopt more stringent targets for greenhouse gas reductions. The litigants argue that the EU’s current greenhouse gas emission targets — a 40 percent reduction over 1990 levels by 2030 — does not adequately protect families against the consequences of climate change.
“In a climate change scenario beyond 2°C, which is where we are headed with the EU’s existing climate target, there will be a desert on the land where my farm stands today and we will have to move,” Alfredo Sendim, an organic farmer from Portugal and a litigant in the action, said in a press statement. “Even below 2°C, it will be a real challenge simply due to the higher and more extreme temperatures in the summer, which are a real death threat to our livestock.”
Unlike a dozen climate lawsuits currently working their way through the United States court system, the EU action is not attempting to recoup financial losses associated with climate change. Instead, the litigants are asking the court to declare three EU climate policies void, because these programs do not adequately cut carbon emissions. These policies are an emissions trading scheme, land use and forestry regulation, and an effort sharing regulation that covers all sectors like transportation and construction.
The action, however, does not ask that these climate regulations be immediately voided. Instead, the action requires that the regulations be implemented and subsequently replaced by higher targets.
A legal summary of the action notes that the case faces some serious hurdles, including the question of admissibility, which, in the European legal system, requires litigants to show that they have suffered direct and individual effects from the issue at hand — in this case, climate change. The summary also notes that this action is merely the first step in what is likely a long legal process, and that the court could take more than a year to render a final decision on the action.
But climate lawsuits are not new for Europe. In 2015, some 900 Dutch citizens filed a lawsuit against their government for failing to act on climate change, arguing that the lack of action constituted a violation of existing human rights laws. A Dutch court eventually sided with the litigants, and ordered the government of the Netherlands to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020 (that decision is currently being appealed to a higher court).
In October of 2017, an environmental group in Ireland filed a lawsuit against the Irish government, claiming that the government was not adequately taking steps to protect citizens from climate change. The complaint noted that the country’s emissions are expected to rise 7.5-10 percent by 2020, despite a National Mitigation Plan that mandates a 25 to 40 percent reduction in emissions over the same period.
In a press statement, Roda Verheyen, a lawyer for the ten families bringing legal action against the EU, noted that people are increasingly turning to the courts for relief from the consequences of climate change and government inaction.
“Climate change is already an issue for the courts in the European countries and around the world,” Verheyen said. “The plaintiff families are putting their trust in the EU Courts and legal system to protect their fundamental rights of life, health, occupation and property which are under threat of climate change. The EU courts must now listen these families and ensure that they are protected.”