Courts are increasingly forcing emissions cuts

Climate action

At the end of a year that has seen an increase in climate-related litigation cases globally, plaintiffs, lawyers and campaigners representing six cases made clear at the UN climate talks in Katowice today that governments can no longer escape from their responsibility to protect the citizens from runaway climate change. In 2018, people around the world kept turning to the courts as politicians failed to deliver anything close to the necessary level of climate change mitigation – and courts increasingly order governments to deliver the urgent cuts in emissions necessary. Judging by the current rate at which these cases are being filed against governments, this is likely to only be tip of the (melting) iceberg in 2019.

To watch the press conference:

Quotes from the plaintiffs and supporting NGOs

Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda, which sued the Dutch Government and successfully defended its victory in the Court of Appeal:
Our victory on 9 October confirms that the Dutch Government should have focused its efforts on increasing action on climate change, and not on fighting a case that has brought so much hope and inspiration around the world. The special report of the IPCC emphasises that we need to reduce emissions with much greater urgency. The Dutch government knows that as a low-lying country we are on the frontline of climate change. Our own government agencies recently concluded that in the worst case scenario sea levels might rise by 2.5 to 3 meters by the end of the century. The Court of Appeal’s decision puts all governments on notice. They must act now, or they will be held to account.

Wendel Trio, Director of CAN-Europe, which supports the legal action against the European Union:
“Ordinary families from different EU Member States and outside have launched a complaint against failing EU climate legislation because they are already feeling the impact of climate change on their lives today. As the recent IPCC report on warming of 1.5°C indicates, these impacts will only get worse if governments don’t step up climate ambition. EU ministers must listen to the concerns of these people, act upon the warnings of the IPCC and commit at COP24 in Katowice to substantially increase the EU’s 2030 target. EU Member States must use this opportunity to show that they are serious about achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the protection of their citizens. “

Catherine Gauthier, Executive Director of ENvironnement JEUnesse, which is taking legal action on behalf of young people aged 35 and under in Quebec, Canada:
“Climate change is real and we are already feeling its consequences. Despite the abundance of scientific studies pointing in the same direction, the Canadian government is failing in its duty to take action against climate change. Instead of accelerating a green transition, Canada is subsidizing oil companies and purchasing a pipeline in our name.”

Clodagh Daly: plaintiff in the legal action against the government of Ireland:
“The Irish government has a duty to protect us from harm by complying with its legal obligations, including human rights law and constitutional law. The Irish government has repeatedly endorsed the IPCC’s conclusion that developed countries’ emissions would need to decrease 25 – 40% between 1990 and 2020. Instead, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency predicts Ireland’s emissions will actually increase 11-12% over this period.
If we are to breathe life into the Paris agreement, we need to see bold, transformative policies across all sectors of the economy. We cannot hide behind other countries emissions, we need to take action right now. The oceans are rising, and so are we.”

Lisa Göldner, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace Germanyand plaintiff in the legal action against the government of Germany:
“By failing to meet its national 2020 climate target and refusing to take additional measures, the German government is violating German and European environmental law and encroaching on the constitutional rights to life and health, property and occupational freedom of people already impacted today by climate change. This is why three families, together with Greenpeace Germany, have filed a lawsuit against the German Federal Government.”

Vic Barrett: plaintiff in the legal action against the US federal government:
“My government has refused to be accountable to future generations and has actively tried to evade this lawsuit for three years. Since I was 16 years old.
They’ve taken drastic measure to avoid having facts presented to them. This case has been unprecedented procedurally having been appealed to the Supreme Court twice and to the 9th Circuit four times. The country that prides itself in its freedom, bravery, and strength has been running away from a group of young people armed with the truth.”

Current and upcoming cases

Urgenda won its case against the Dutch Government in 2015 which resulted in the court ordering the government to significantly reduce the Netherlands’ emissions by 2020. In October 2018, the Dutch Government lost their appeal against that decision, creating a powerful new legal precedent for climate litigation.

Three German families filed a case against the national Government in October arguing that the government is violating their constitutional rights to life and health, property and occupational freedom by failing to take measures to meet the German national 2020 climate protection target.

In November 2018 a group of young Canadians initiated an action against their government alleging that it is infringing upon their generation’s fundamental rights by failing to enact a more ambitious emissions reduction target, and for failing to even take the steps needed to meet the current weak target.

In May 2018, 10 families from the EU and abroad, together with the Saami Youth, filed a case in the EU’s General Court claiming that the EU’s 2030 target for reducing emissions is insufficient and in breach of their fundamental rights, including rights to life, health, occupation and property.

A group of young people won a groundbreaking climate case in April against the Colombian government in which the Supreme Court ordered the Government to create an intergenerational pact for the life of Colombian Amazon.

In January 2019 the case brought by Friends of the Irish Environment against the Government of Ireland challenging the lawfulness of its National Mitigation Plan will be heard in the High Court in Dublin. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment recently weighed in on the case, stating that ‘the Government of Ireland has clear, positive and enforceable obligations to protect against the infringement of human rights by climate change.’

United States:
21 young people have filed a landmark case against the US federal government seeking comprehensive measures for ‘climate recovery’. They may finally get their day in court in 2019 after multiple delays caused by a series of challenges by the Trump administration.

The long-awaited defense arguments of the Belgian Government in the climate case brought by over 39,000 Belgian citizens should be filed in 2019.


Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Global Trends in Climate Litigation and Legislation:

UN Environment, Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law: New Study Identifies Key Trends in Worldwide Climate Change Litigation:

Full database of climate change cases:

Media contact:

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


Press release

New Parliament. Same Planet.

Brussels, 10 June 2024 —  The 2024 European Parliament election will go down as one that was characterised by frustration at the rising cost of living, growing inequalities and political

Read More »