(CBS News) – The highest court in the Netherlands ruled Friday that the nation’s government must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of next year. The landmark case marks the first time a country has been held responsible by its courts to take action against climate change.
“The lives, well-being and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened” by climate change, Presiding Judge Kees Streefkerk, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.”
The government was attempting to appeal earlier rulings that it must cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 from 1990 levels. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings that humans have a fundamental right to be protected from the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change by their government, because “there is a serious risk that a dangerous climate change will occur that threatens the lives and well-being of many in the Netherlands.”
Urgenda, the Dutch environmental organization that filed the original case, told The Associated Press that the ruling is “a groundbreaking decision that confirms that individual governments must do their fair share to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Urgenda first filed the climate case in 2013 on behalf of nearly 900 Dutch citizens, with a goal of lowering emissions between 25% and 40%. It was the first in the world to attempt to use human rights law to force the government to address carbon emissions.
Following a ruling of the District Court in favor of Urgenda in 2015, the Dutch government appealed the case, but The Hague Court of Appeal upheld the original court decision in 2018. Earlier this year, the government appealed again, this time with the Supreme Court.
Friday’s ruling rejected that appeal. Judge Streefkerk ruled that Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) — the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life — brings climate change under the umbrella of human rights protections.
Because Friday’s ruling was based in part on the ECHR, other European citizens can use the ruling in future cases against their own governments. According to Urgenda, it has inspired similar cases in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ireland, Germany, France, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K., Switzerland and the European Union.
A similar case is ongoing in the United States, where 21 kids and young adults are trying to get the courts to force the government to wean the country off the use of fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, endangering their future and violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. The Justice Department has said the U.S. government is not responsible for fixing a global issue.
The Dutch government attempted to argue that a reduction in the nation’s emissions would be too small to make a difference on a global scale. However, the judge ruled that the Netherlands, as a member of the United Nations Climate Convention, is “responsible for its share” in reducing emissions worldwide.
“I am extremely happy that the highest court in the Netherlands has confirmed that climate change is a real, severe problem and that government should do what they themselves have declared for more than 10 years is necessary, namely between 25% and 40% reduction of CO2,” Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma told The AP following the ruling.
Damian Rau, one of the plaintiffs who filed the case with Urgenda, said the case “will set the action we so urgently need into motion and will force governments into taking their responsibility. The judgment is an example to the world that no one is powerless and everybody can make a difference.”
Greenpeace Netherlands called the ruling a “breakthrough” at a time when governments around the world have largely failed to address the climate crisis.
President Trump has started the process of withdrawing the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which aimed to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Emissions would have to start declining rapidly to meet that goal, which appears unlikely given the failure of talks at the recent U.N. global climate summit in Madrid.
Time is running out for governments to address the crisis. Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2018, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Carbon dioxide emissions are on track to climb until 2040, even if every country that’s committed to cutting pollution meets its promises.
According to a recent report by the Netherlands’ Environmental Assessment Agency, the country is unlikely to meet the 25% reduction target. It estimates Dutch greenhouse gas emissions next year may be about 23% lower than 1990 levels.