Supreme Court ruling a lift for climate activists worldwide

Decision a reminder that failure on climate commitments is actionable in court of law

In this landmark case, there was no dispute between the parties concerning climate science. File photograph: The Irish Times

In this landmark case, there was no dispute between the parties concerning climate science. File photograph: The Irish Times

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The Supreme Court decision in what has become known as “Climate Case Ireland” will be a fillip for climate activists worldwide convinced governments are failing to curb carbon emissions, given what they perceive as an immediate existential threat to the Earth.

Within corridors of power, it will be a reminder to national administrations that failure on climate commitments is actionable in a court of law.

Similar cases of climate ligation are in train in many countries and are likely to increase in light of verifiable proof of climate disruption caused by human activity, big corporations – especially fossil fuel companies – and the policies of governments.

Up to now, it should be acknowledged that most actions have failed. The Irish climate case is only one of two that have reached a country’s highest court.

The first was the crowd-funded “Urgenda” case brought in The Netherlands where the court ruled the Dutch government knowingly exposing its own citizens to danger as a consequence of its climate policy, and it was found to have infringed rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights by failing on climate action.

Tellingly, those involved in taking the case helped Friends of the Irish Environment in bringing their action.

In Ireland, much has changed since the unquestionably weak 2017 National Mitigation Plan, notably in terms of scaling up ambition and emissions reduction targets. It was said to be “a living document” to be updated but, remarkably, it allowed for an increase in emissions.

This decision, however, will be a reminder to the Government on delivery and the risk of being held accountable legally. Crucially, the Supreme Court determined that the plan was indeed subject to review by the courts.

As environmental law expert in UCC Dr Áine Ryall noted: “Judicial review of the plan did not amount to an impermissible venture by the courts into areas of policy, as the Government had argued.”

The net result is that the plan is quashed and a new one must now be produced which meets the requirements of the 2015 Climate Act. “Moreover, the court has set out clear markers here as to what is required in terms of the level of detail that must be included in any new plan if it is to pass muster. This is a very significant development in the law for those arguing for more robust climate action from Government,” she added.

The reality is that the 2019 Climate Action Plan provides much of that missing detail though climate activists would contend its annual emissions target – a 3.5 per cent cut – is still inadequate given what is facing the world as a consequence of global heating.

Measuring commitments

There are two key actions against which the Government’s commitments on climate action will be measured. First is the promised Climate Action Bill, which will include a mechanism to introduce five-yearly carbon budgets to force sectors to reduce their emissions. This is promised within the first 100 days of office. Second is a National Energy and Climate Plan required by the EU, which must set out how emissions will be reduced up to 2030, and beyond. Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan, whose hand is strengthened by the court decision, has indicated this will be fully in place by early next year.

Climate groups have underlined the need to push on immediately. As they view it, the Government already had a scientific, political and moral obligation to step up its efforts to cut climate-polluting emissions, now the Supreme Court has ruled it has a legal obligation as well.

In this landmark case, there was no dispute between the parties concerning climate science, no dispute about the projected severe impacts of climate disruption and no dispute therefore about the need to achieve sharp reductions. It was about the detail and ambition.

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