A ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court - that the country must press ahead with significant cuts in carbon emissions - could prove a breakthrough for climate activists, writes
On New Year’s Eve, the city of Sydney went ahead with a A$6.5m (€4m) fireworks display while much of southern Australia burned, reducing many hundreds of properties to ashes and leaving scores of people dead.
The city’s public relations department surpassed itself. “2020 arrives in sparkly Sydney style,” said its press release, prompting a furious response from Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Elizabeth Farrelly.
“Even inside, the air made your eyes water. Sparkly? There’s nothing sparkling about this.”
Australia’s bumbling prime minister, Scott Morrison, fresh from a family break in Hawaii, was filmed by a TV camera turning his back on a young woman made homeless by the conflagration after she declined to shake his hand.
The PM stood by his policy of climate change scepticism though he has finally acknowledged the seriousness of the current situation, and is now warning that the crisis is set to last several months.
Next month, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, will take up a new job as the United Nations envoy for climate action. Mr Carney has warned that “the world will face irreversible heating unless firms shift their priorities soon.”
He estimates that we are on course to register a warming in global temperatures of almost 4Cfour degrees centigrade. Further foot-dragging could result in a massive wipeout in asset values as society is forced into a last-minute panicked response.
Mr Carney estimates that in this event, up to 80%5 of coal assets and one half of developed oil reservesd would be stranded, resulting in a financial wipeout of Venezuelan proportions.
Some states have been taking action. Denmark has just announced that, in 2009, it sourced almost half of its power from wind. It aims to achieve 100% of its power from renewable sources by 2030. The EU average is 14% though here, at least, Ireland does well, with just under 30% of its power coming from wind energy sources.
The Danes are also targeting a 70% reduction in their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Across the North Sea, in the Netherlands, the country’s Supreme Court has delivered an important ruling. In what is being seen as a breakthrough for climate activists, the court has ruled that the country’s government is legally obliged to press ahead with significant cuts in carbon emissions.
The court has ordered the government to step up its efforts to reduce emissions. In the view of the judges, a government has an obligation to protect its citizens’ human rights in the face of climate change, adding that — specifically — it must reduce emissions by at least 25% compared to 1990 levels by the end of 2020.
The case was taken by the Urgenda Foundation, a group of climate activists.
The court concluded that individual nations have direct obligations under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to life and to family life.
Parents of health-compromised children in smoked-out places like Sydney will understand all too well the import of this judgment.
The legal counsel for Urgenda, Dennis van Berkel, told The Guardian that, while no court outside the Netherlands would be bound by the decision, it would have influence and wouldprovide others with “inspiration”.
According to David Boyd, UN special rapporteur, “it is the most important climate change decision so far, confirming that human rights are being jeopardised by the climate emergency, and that wealthy nations are legally obliged to achieve rapid and substantial emissions reductions.”
Closer to home, climate activists have also been taking their case to the courts. Environmental NGO, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), have taken a case in which they argued that the Government’s National Mitigation Plan failed to comply with the Climate Act 2015.
They have argued that the plan was unconstitutional as it “failed to protect fundamental rights set out in the constitution, such as the right to life, bodily integrity and protection of the environment”.
The case, known as ‘Climate Case Ireland’, is the first in which citizens seek sought to hold the Government accountable for its role in contributing to damaging climate change.
In a recent decision of the High Court, Mr Justice McGrath ruled in favour of the Government on the substantial claim, while at the same time accepting that the FIE had legal standing to bring the action.
The judge acknowledged that the country is already being impacted by climate change, while noting that this was also accepted by the authors of the plan, which “recognises that there is a limited window for real action”.
Much of the argument before the court centred around the separation of powers between the three pillars of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — and the reluctance of the court to usurp the functions of the executive arm.
Counsel for the FIE, Eoin McCullough, stressed the “non-mandatory, negative nature of the relief sought”.
“It is simply a request to the court to quash an unlawful policy,” he submitted. “That the striking down of a piece of legislation may have knock-on financial implications does not necessarily involve an infringement of theseparation of powers.”
The FIE has applied for permission to leapfrog the Court of Appeal and have its appeal heard directly in the Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court accepts the case, we can anticipate an interesting encounter — one that will provide clarity regarding the attitudes of our top judges towards an issue which will loom ever larger in importance.