Climate Litigation: more and more citizens are taking big emitters to court over human rights allegation

Climate action

COP 25 Press Conference can be followed here:

In 2019, climate litigation continued to expand across world jurisdictions. Increasing number of citizens and NGOs started to use legal frameworks to hold their governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for failing to address the climate crisis. Besides, courts have taken decisions to recognise that the governments and big emitters are failing to protect human rights due to their climate inaction.

Press conference hosted by CAN Europe at COP 25 in Madrid gathered representatives from six legal initiatives to hold big emitters accountable.  

Known as the world’s first climate change and human rights liability inquiry, the Philippines petition decision was announced by the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines during COP 25. Yeb Saño, Executive Director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, shared the Commission’s decision finding  the 47 corporations investigated are legally and morally liable for human rights harms to Filipinos arising from climate change. Saño said: “For the first time ever, big polluting companies have been found responsible for human rights harms resulting from the climate crisis. A growing number of climate cases are now being heard or filed across the world—and with the conclusion of the investigation by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, we believe many more communities will take a stand against fossil fuel companies that are putting profit before people.”

In October 2019, the Berlin Administrative Court made a decision on the first ever climate litigation case against the German government. Three farming families and Greenpeace Germany had filed a complaint against Angela Merkel’s government for failing to meet its 2020 climate target. Even though the case was dismissed, the Court recognised the right to a safe climate. Lisa Göldner from Greenpeace Germany said: “For the first time in history, a German court has ruled that people’s fundamental rights can be violated by the impacts of global heating. The message is clear: climate protection means human rights protection. German climate policies must adhere to this principle.”

Sadhbh O’Neill from Friends of the Irish Environment an environmental organisation that is challenging the lawfulness of the Irish government’s National Mitigation Plan in the Higher Court said: “Ireland’s emissions are still well above their 1990 levels and nowhere near a Paris-aligned trajectory. In the absence of political leadership, civil society has taken to the courts to put science, human rights and climate justice at the heart of Ireland’s climate response. Our climate case, along with a growing climate movement, has pressed the government to produce a new climate plan – one that will reduce emissions rapidly and deeply. We’re hoping our appeal will be heard in 2020. In the meantime, it’s clear that litigation and activism have already changed our decision-makers’ perception of climate risks and urgency.”

In Italy, a coalition of over 100 organisations is promoting “The Last Judgement” campaign, that anticipates the first legal case against the State over its inadequate climate action. Over 10.000 citizens have signed so far the petition to support the case. Spokeswoman of the Italian campaign and researcher for the legal action, Cecilia Erba from A Sud said: “The Italian State has failed to adopt ambitious climate policies and emissions reduction targets in line with the most advanced scientific evidence, and thus to protect the fundamental rights of its people. Italy is already warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. This is why a group of citizens and associations is taking the State to Court.” Plaintiffs in the legal case will be a number of individuals, organizations and children represented by their parents.

In May 2019, Dutch NGO MilieuDefensie (Friends of the Earth NL), 7 other environmental NGOs and more than 17,000 individual co-plaintiffs took the fossil fuel company Shell to court for worsening the climate crisis. Nine de Pater from Milieu Defensie said: “ Shell is one of the biggest emitters of CO2 in the world. Despite the fact that they have known about climate change and their own contribution to the crisis Shell did not change their policies. A report published last week shows that Shell is planning to invest billions in new oil and gas. The emissions from these projects will bring us far beyond 1.5 and 2 degrees warming. Shell will not change voluntarily. That is why we decided to go to court. We are demanding that Shell reduces the emissions from production and their products with 45% in 2030 en to net 0 in 2050.”     

In the legal case challenging the EU’s 2030 climate target, 10 families and the Sami youth appealed to the European Court of Justice after the case was dismissed on procedural grounds. They say that the first instance court’s decision to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs are not unique to be hit by the climate crisis is against the very rationale of fundamental rights. By sharing an update on the legal proceedings, Wendel Trio, Director of CAN Europe said: “Today, the EU is playing a two-faced game. On the one hand, they declare climate emergency and on the other hand, they turn a blind eye to those affected by the climate crisis and who are seeking climate justice in courts. If the EU is serious about tackling the climate crisis, it must substantially increase its 2030 climate target in early 2020, without needing a court order to do so.”



Goksen Sahin, CAN Europe Communications Coordinator,, +32 468 45 39 20

Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe is Europe’s leading NGO coalition fighting dangerous climate change. With over 160 member organisations from 35 European countries, representing over 1.700 NGOs and more than 40 million citizens, CAN Europe promotes sustainable climate, energy and development policies throughout Europe.


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