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Dutch Court initiates ‘start of a wave of climate legislation’

Judge Hans Hofhuis's ruling in a court in The Hague has set a legal precedent that could have global implications.

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As Judge Hans Hofhuis spoke on Wednesday, his words were carried across the world by cheers and hoots from jubilant environmental campaigners. His ruling in a court in The Hague has set a legal precedent that could have global implications. He overruled the Dutch government’s commitment to cut carbon emissions by up to 17% by 2020 and instead ordered it to reduce them by 25%.

Celebrating success now with a climate summit scheduled for France later this year, climate change activists are warning governments to be prepared for more to come.

“This is the first time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens,” said Dennis van Berkel, legal counsel for Urgenda, the group that brought the suit. “That must inform the reduction commitments in Paris because if it doesn’t, they can expect pressure from courts in their own jurisdictions.”

It was the first climate liability case brought to court under human rights and tort law, and argued there was a need for states to take independent responsibility for climate change. It had been taken on behalf of 900 citizens who said the government had to protect them from the dangers. It took over two and a half years but when the verdict came young activists in court said it had gone “some way to restoring Dutch national pride”, the Netherlands having been usurped in the race for green some time ago by Germany, Denmark and even the UK.

Judge Hofhuis said that given current policy, the Netherlands would only achieve a reduction of 17% by 2020 which was less than that of other nations. Campaigners argued this was not enough to counter the dangers that shrinking ice caps would present. The Netherlands is a low lying country and therefore is extremely vulnerable to rising water levels.

It was described as a landmark case by Jasper Teulings from Greenpeace who said, “It shifts the whole debate. Other cases are being brought in Belgium, the Philippines. This is the start of a wave of climate legislation.”
ClientEarth, the environmental law group, celebrated the result. “There are moments in history when only courts can address overwhelming problems. In the past it has been issues like discrimination,” said the CEO James Thornton. “Climate change is our overwhelming problem and this court has addressed it. The Dutch court’s ruling should encourage courts around the world to tackle climate change now.”

The Dutch environment minister Wilma Mansfeld responded saying, “We and Urgenda share the same goal. We just hold different opinions regarding the manner in which to attain this goal. We will now examine what this ruling means for the Dutch state.”

A parliamentary debate has been called for on the case, and whether or not it means the government will appeal the ruling remains to be seen.