Climate Action

UN says climate litigation has doubled in the past 6 years. Here are 5 breakthrough cases

Climate justice sign at a protest.

The number of climate-related court cases has more than doubled since 2017. Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Failure to act on the climate crisis is the most severe threat over the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023.
  • Climate activists are increasingly using legal action to enforce climate action, a new report shows.
  • Here are some of the notable breakthroughs climate litigation has already achieved.

Lawyers may seem unlikely allies in the fight against the climate emergency but, according to a new survey, they are playing an increasingly important role in holding corporations and governments accountable for failures to tackle the climate crisis.

Research by the Columbia Law School, commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reveals that the number of climate-related court cases has more than doubled since 2017 and is steadily rising around the world.

Graphs illustrating the growth of climate change litigation.
The number of climate-related court cases has more than doubled since 2017. Image: UNEP

Their report confirms a trend highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, which noted that individuals and environmental groups were turning to the law as it became clear that the pace of transition to net-zero emissions was too slow.

“Climate litigation is increasing and concerns about emissions under-reporting and greenwashing have triggered calls for new regulatory oversight for the transition to net zero,” the Forum report said.

Failure to mitigate climate change is the single biggest risk to the world over the next decade, according to the Global Risks Report, with failure to adapt to climate change ranked as the second most severe long-term threat.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says global temperatures are already 1C higher than pre-industrial levels and warns that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut to zero if the rise in global temperatures is to be contained at 1.5C.

The UNEP report catalogues a number of high-profile court cases which have succeeded in enforcing climate action. In 2017, when climate case numbers were last counted, 884 legal actions had been brought. Today the total stands at 2,180.

A majority of climate cases to date – 1,522 – have been brought in the United States, followed by Australia (127), the UK (79) and the EU (62). The report notes that the number of legal actions in developing countries is growing, now accounting for 17% of the total.

View of people at a climate change protest.
Can legal action help limit global heating to 1.5C? Image: Unsplash/Mika Baumeister

“Climate policies are far behind what is needed to keep global temperatures below the 1.5C threshold, with extreme weather events and searing heat already baking our planet,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

“People are increasingly turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice.”

Climate litigation is also giving a voice to vulnerable groups who are being hard hit by climate change. The report says that, globally, 34 cases have been brought by children and young people, including two by girls aged seven and nine in Pakistan and India.

Here are five of the climate breakthroughs achieved by legal action so far.

1. Torres Strait Islanders vs Australia

In September 2022, indigenous people living on islands in the Torres Strait between northern Queensland and Papua New Guinea won a landmark ruling that their human rights were being violated by the failure of the Australian government to take effective climate action.

The ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee established the principle that a country could be in breach of international human rights law over climate inaction by ruling that Australia’s poor climate record was a violation of the islanders’ right to family life and culture.

2. Paris agreement is a human rights treaty

In July 2022, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the Paris climate agreement is legally a human rights treaty which, it said, meant that it automatically overruled any domestic laws which conflicted with the country’s climate obligations.

The court ordered the Brazilian government to reopen its national climate mitigation fund which was established under the Paris Agreement, ruling that it had a constitutional duty to honour its obligations.

3. Climate inaction is a breach of human rights

Upholding an earlier court ruling that greenhouse emissions must be cut by 25% by 2020, the Netherlands Supreme Court ruled that failure to curb emissions was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The December 2019 ruling stated that, although it was up to politicians to decide how to make the emission cuts, failure to do so would be a breach of Articles 2 and 8 of the Convention which affirm the right to life and respect for private and family life.

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4. Companies are bound by the Paris accord

The principle that corporations and not just governments must abide by the emissions reductions agreed in the Paris climate treaty was established by a 2021 court ruling in the Netherlands brought by environmentalists against energy group Royal Dutch Shell.

The court ordered Shell to cut its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 bringing them in line with Paris climate targets. The judge was reported as saying there was "worldwide agreement" that a 45% reduction was needed, adding: "This applies to the entire world, so also to Shell”.

5. Courts overturn state climate plans

To date, three European governments have been defeated in the courts over their climate plans. In March 2021, Germany’s highest court struck down a climate law requiring 55% emissions by 2030 cuts, ruling it did not do enough to protect citizens’ rights to life and health.

In the same year, the French government was ordered to take “immediate and concrete action” to comply with its climate commitments. And in 2022, the UK’s climate strategy was ruled unlawful for failing to spell out how emissions cuts would be made.

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