What does historic court ruling mean for Dutch climate policy?

After last month’s landmark legal verdict, Netherlands politicians must consider deep emissions cuts

Urgenda

Justices deliver the verdict (Photo: Urgenda)

By Alex Pashley

The Dutch government was ordered to make deeper emissions cuts last month, in the first climate change lawsuit of its kind.

Campaigners were euphoric. Commentators talked of precedents set.

But what’s to say the Netherlands will comply?

On 24 June, a district court ruled the state must up its game on climate action.

Ministers must slash CO2 by 25% on 1990 levels within five years, according to the ruling. Pressure group Urgenda successfully argued a prior 17% target wasn’t in step with developed countries’ efforts to curb global warming.

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“The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment,” the verdict read.

The government has the right to appeal. But it has agreed to first open the subject to parliamentary debate in the Hague in September.

The prospect of further years of legal wrangling will narrow its window to act.

For years, the Netherlands has trailed in its climate obligations.

In 2012, Dutch emissions were 8.8% lower than 1990. Its share of renewables in final energy consumption increased to 4.5% in 2013, a baby step towards its target of 14% by 2020. Meanwhile, a string of coal-fired plants have come online in recent years.

Despite being one of the richer countries in the EU, the Netherlands is aiming lower than the bloc’s overall target of a 20% renewable share by 2020.

Climate campaigners cheered and hugged each other as the verdict was read out at a district court in the Hague on June 24 (Photo: Urgenda)

Climate campaigners cheered and hugged each other as the verdict was read out at a district court in the Hague on June 24 (Photo: Urgenda)

The government said it “aims to prevent climate change” and is “working on the implementation of relevant agreements made within Europe”.

Kornelis Blok at energy consultancy Ecofys laments how a country influential in writing the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s has lapsed.

But reactions to the ruling varied.

“Some people think that it is not for the courts to intervene in what is essentially a political issue; but the environmentalists and others are quite happy,” Joyeeta Gupta, a professor at the University of Amsterdam said in an email.

Marjan Minnesma, who started the case in 2013 backed by 900 Dutch citizens, said they were “overjoyed” by the result.

Dennis van Berkel, Urgenda’s legal counsel noted enthusiastic reactions to the verdict, with a hashtag #ganietinberoep (no to appeal) trending on Twitter.

“Lots of parties have approached us. The positive energy of all of these people show a way forward to finally start acting,” he said.

The official response will depend on how the three-year coalition government’s two parties align.

The largest party, the VVD led by PM Mark Rutte, is economically liberal and counts among its members people “that question climate science,” Blok said from Utrecht.

Coalition partner Labour PvdA has a stronger record of advocating for emissions cuts.

“In the end it comes back to the coalition,” said Blok. “Labour may come from a different viewpoint and decide to support the other [VVD], or it could have a majority with other parties, which would be an important signal.”

Horse-trading over other key votes, however, meant their support could go either way.

For Blok, getting to a 25% cut was “doable, though it’s quite a challenge to ramp up policy making in five years”.

Closing the country’s coal-fired power plants would work, he says, though the Netherlands should eye something “more structural” grounded in energy efficiency and renewables.

Indeed Urgenda says the Netherlands can transition to a 100% sustainable energy supply by 2030, by changing practices in the built environment and in industry.

The solution could be cheaper.

News wire Carbon Pulse reported the government could simply buy 13 million units of UN carbon credits to offset the reductions. That would cost 5 million euros at today’s prices.

A spokesperson at the Ministry for Infrastructure and Environment declined to comment on its position, with the case being examined.

But for lawyer van Berkel, carbon offsets wouldn’t be the “right course of action”.

Now, parliament is in recess and the issue has dropped out of the headlines. But for campaigners, there’s no time to backpedal for the government.

“The government must work on the measures putting their energy into getting CO2 down,” van Berkel said.

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