In a historic climate litigation case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg six young people from Portugal claimed 32 European countries have a legal duty to act more urgently in response to the climate crisis and to achieve deeper carbon emission cuts.
The case heard on Wednesday coincides with a rise in climate litigation cases throughout the world against governments and corporations. It comes after a judge in Montana, US, ruled recently that young people in the state have a right to a stable climate.
The young people from areas in Portugal ravaged by wildfires and heatwaves submitted the countries’ failure to cut emissions fast enough was a violation of their fundamental rights.
The case – filed against the 27 EU member states as well as Britain, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and Turkey – is the largest climate case to be heard by the ECHR.
With the support of the Galway-based Global Legal Action Network (Glan), the litigants aged between 11 and 24 are seeking a legally binding decision that would force the states to act.
A ruling is expected in the first half of 2024. If the complaint is upheld, it could result in orders from national courts for governments to cut emissions faster than currently planned.
Glan lawyer Gerry Liston said if successful it would be up to national courts to enforce the rulings but they would be provided with a roadmap to ensure enforcement was effective.
“European governments’ climate policies are consistent with a catastrophic 3 degrees of global heating this century. For the brave youth applicants, that is a life sentence of heat extremes which are unimaginable even by today’s rapidly deteriorating standards,” he added.
One of the six, Andre Oliveira (15), said their goal was to force governments to “do what they promised they would do”; referring to the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions to limit global warming to 2 degrees and ideally 1.5 degrees.
“Without urgent action to cut emissions, where I live will soon become an unbearable furnace,” said Martim Agostinho (20.
More than 80 lawyers were in court to represent the accused countries, while the applicants were represented by six lawyers.
Court president Síofra O’Leary said: “The case is concerned with articles 2, 3, 18 and 14 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] as regards the impact of climate change ... which results in heatwaves and wildfires affecting the applicants’ lives and health.”
Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatović told the court she was intervening in the case because of the effect of the climate crisis on young people.
She added: “There is no doubt that climate change is a planetary threat to human rights and human existence. Climate change has a devastating impact on human life for all of us, but in particular on children and young people. It will confine many children to a life of hardship. It is crucial that young people affected by climate change are heard and have access to justice ... Time is of the essence; climate change is outpacing government action.”
Portugal’s legal team has submitted it was committed to fighting climate change but the applicants had failed to provide evidence of its direct impact on them.
Ireland’s defence says its climate response, which comprises EU and domestic level policies, “is within its margin of appreciation”, aims at the highest possible ambition and strikes a fair balance between community and individual interests.
After the conclusion of the morning session, Glan lawyer Gearóid Ó Cuinn said the governments were “consistently pushing back on the claims of the young people and doing so in a way that focuses entirely on the technicalities, trying to get the case kicked out at the point of admissibility”.
Dr Ó Cuinn believed it was part of a pattern where they were seeking to evade scrutiny of their climate policies by focusing solely on the admissibility criteria “and none of them have refuted the evidence that we’ve put forward, that their policies are leading to collectively 3 degrees of warming or more”.
Ireland claims the risks of climate change are “negligible in comparison to the environmental hazards inherent to life in a modern city”.
The environmental NGO Friends of the Irish Environment has described this position as “misleading, unscientific, and dangerous”.
“By downplaying the potential impacts of climate change and comparing them to the relatively minor risks of living in a modern city, the Irish government’s argument is misleading. It is unscientific because the scientific consensus on climate change is clear: it is a real and serious threat to our planet and its inhabitants. And it is dangerous because it will discourage people from taking action to address climate change,” a FIE spokesman added.
Mr Liston, for the applicants, noted: “Ireland is the only government to state explicitly that the risk the applicants face is no greater than the risks inherent to life in a modern city, in the face of evidence that they stand to endure 40 degree plus heatwaves which last for over a month if we remain on our current trajectory of global warming.”
He added: “It also made the extremely disingenuous claim that its 2030 target to reduce emissions by 51 per cent below 2018 level is the second most ambitious in the world – a claim which rests entirely on the fact that Ireland’s emissions continued to rise throughout the last decade while other countries were reducing theirs,” he added. – Additional reporting Guardian