Climate activists lose High Court case against Government

Judge says the Government’s mitigation plan is an ‘important piece of the jigsaw’

The High Court has found in favour of the Government after a group of climate activists challenged its 2017 National Mitigation Plan to tackle climate change, claiming it was in violation of human rights and other legal obligations.

In the landmark case, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) argued that this  plan fell short of meeting its international obligations in lowering carbon emissions.

The group, which took the case under the name Climate Case Ireland, said the Government’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan was in violation of Ireland’s Climate Act 2015, and human rights obligations. It also argued the adoption of the plan disregarded Irish citizens’ constitutional rights to life, bodily integrity and an environment and that it fell short of steps required under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In his ruling on Thursday, Mr Justice Michael McGrath told a packed court room that the case was “very complex” and involved “difficult issues of law and science”.

He said the State had published the mitigation plan as “an initial step in making the country a low carbon economy. While the applicant says there is no hope of achieving this and the plan is inadequate, the difference between the parties is immediacy.”

He acknowledged that additional measures may be needed to meet emissions obligations but that the plan was “a living document” and an “initial step in the making the country low carbon and environmentally sustainable by 2050”.

Mr Justice McGrath said he was “not satisfied that the making of the plan” had infringed people’s rights and that the applicants had not proved that the Act itself was repugnant to the Irish Constitution. Citing the separation of powers, he said the court could not dictate policy to the Government.

“It cannot be concluded that it is the Act itself which places rights at risk, and I couldn’t reasonably conclude as specified in legislation that it is contrary to national policy for climate change.

“The plan is but one, albeit extremely important, piece of the jigsaw.”

Speaking following the ruling, FIE spokeswoman Sadhbh O’Neill said the group could not confirm whether they would appeal the decision until legal representatives had examined the judgement which will be released in full on Friday.

She expressed disappointment at the decision but said the group felt somewhat reassured by the judge’s assertion that FIE had the standing to take the case in the first place. “Standing is often a very big hurdle that NGOs face in taking these kinds of legal actions. It means if we do take an appeal we probably won’t have to fight that argument again.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said the Government had noted the outcome of the case and would consider the judgement but was “focused on implementing the Climate Action plan” which would give Ireland a “cleaner, safer and sustainable future”.

Similar climate actions against governments have been taken across the world including in the Netherlands where a successful legal challenge, known as the Urgenda case, ordered the Dutch government to accelerate its carbon emissions cuts in the face of climate emergency.

Ms O’Neill said FIE now faced the prospect of explaining to thousands of children taking part in Friday’s climate march that the courts would not review the Government’s climate plan.

“I worry people will become very disenchanted, that they’ll feel alienated by the legal system if they aren’t responding with urgency. How do we explain that to children?” she asked.

“Somebody has to shake up the system and communicate to policy makers that we don’t have the time to wait for an appeal, they have to act now. We’re already way behind our 2020 emission targets, they’re out of the questions now. But even to meet the 2030 targets we’re going to have to introduce a new set of ambitions.”