After a pair of historic hearings, the future of European and international climate action is hanging on the decision of judges at the European Court of Human Rights.
The two lawsuits, heard today in Strasbourg, accuse the governments of France and Switzerland of breaching the human rights of their citizens by not doing enough to cut national emissions.
It is the first time climate change has come before the European Court of Human Rights, but is unlikely to be the last.
The lawsuits were filed by a former French mayor and a group of Swiss seniors, all of whom argue that their governments have breached their rights to life and to respect for private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judgements could set a “pivotal” precedent for climate action, campaigners told Climate Home News, as they could make states take more ambitious climate action as part of their human rights obligations.
Elders facing extreme heat
In the first case, an association of 2,038 older women called the KlimaSeniorinnen, as well as four individual applicants, argue that they are particularly vulnerable to climate change.
They presented evidence to the court that older people – particularly women – are more likely to die during heatwaves.
The group, which has an average age of 73, first petitioned the domestic courts for action but its case was dismissed.
Switzerland does not dispute that climate change is real and could affect human health. But the government’s legal team told the court its carbon emissions could not be directly linked to the health of older women and said they were not the only ones affected.
Furthermore, it maintained that its existing climate targets and policies are sufficient and said it should not be asked to do more if it was not technically and economically feasible.
Jessica Simor, a lawyer representing the KlimaSeniorinnen, said Switzerland itself had never assessed the fairness of its climate targets and policies, pointing to independent research by Climate Action Tracker that deems the country’s current efforts ‘insufficient’.
Vidéo : Audience Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz et autres c. Suisse https://t.co/fFghE94vTl | Video: Hearing Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and others v. Switzerland https://t.co/LQsm3aMC56#ECHR #CEDH #ECHRhearing pic.twitter.com/JSJASyX5em
— ECHR CEDH (@ECHR_CEDH) March 29, 2023
Switzerland currently aims to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2030, which is lower than its formal international commitment of cutting “at least 50%” of all greenhouse gas emissions by the same date.
In 2021, the Swiss government held a referendum to align its domestic target with the more ambitious 50% cut, but voters rejected it.
Marc Willers, a barrister representing the KlimaSeniorinnen, told the court that blaming the referendum was “plainly a bad argument” and claimed Switzerland was responsible for its violations “irrespective of how they came about”.
The KlimaSeniorinnen want Switzerland to cut its domestic emissions by above 60% below 1990 levels by 2030, which they say is more in line with similar nations and the EU itself.
Willers said Switzerland’s approach undermined global trust and efforts to combat climate change. If a nation as rich and technologically advanced as Switzerland does not do its fair share, he argued, “what hope is there that other countries will step up?”
In the second lawsuit, against the government of France, the former mayor of the commune of Grande-Synthe argues that he is personally vulnerable because his home is at risk from flooding.
Damien Carême, now a green MEP for France, had also brought a domestic case against France to the country’s top administrative court. In 2021, the court ordered the government to act immediately to meet its climate commitments, or risk potential fines.
But Carême is challenging the French court’s assertion that he is not directly affected by the country’s failure to take sufficient action on climate change.
The French government contends that Carême should not be considered a victim under the law and asked for the case to be struck out.
Diégo Colas, director of legal affairs at the French foreign ministry, told the court that France had recently enhanced its emission reduction measures and compliance with its objectives was already being scrutinised by the domestic courts.
New cases coming
The 17-judge panel will now consider its ruling, which is not expected until next year.
In the meantime, the court will hear a third climate case, filed by six Portuguese young people against 32 countries, including all EU member states, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, Ukraine and Turkey, which has been scheduled for the autumn.
The group, now aged between 11 and 23, claims that government inaction on climate change discriminates against young people and poses a tangible risk to life. It refers in particular to forest fires that killed more than one hundred people in Portugal in 2017 and which were worsened by climate change.
Gerry Liston, senior lawyer at Global Action Legal Network, which is supporting the Portuguese case, said the lawsuits gave the court “power to direct a major acceleration in European action on the climate crisis”.
Sébastien Duyck, human rights and climate campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law, described the hearings as a “pivotal moment” in the fight against climate change and said the resulting judgments would be carefully monitored by governments and civil society organisations around the world.
“They have the potential to set an influential legal precedent that would further confirm that states must take more adequate action against climate change as a matter of their human rights obligations,” said Duyck.
If the court finds human rights have been breached, it could open the floodgates to similar litigation before the European Court of Human Rights and national courts in all member states of the Council of Europe, said Annalisa Savaresi, associate professor in international environmental law at the University of Eastern Finland.
NOTE: Expenses for attending the court hearing were supported by a grant from the Foundation for International Law for the Environment