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Momentum Builds on the Path to Paris: Papal Encyclical and Dutch Court Demand Greater Climate Action

June 24, 2015

As the international community prepares to negotiate a global agreement on climate change at COP21/CMP11 this December in Paris, two institutions have recently taken unprecedented actions to help build momentum, calling for swift and ambitious action.

Last week, Pope Francis issued a wide-ranging teaching letter calling for unified global action on climate change and the environment. And yesterday, a court in The Hague ordered the Dutch government to do more to reduce the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Pope Calls for Unified Global Action on Climate Change

On June 18, the Vatican released the second encyclical of Pope Francis. In the text, Pope Francis calls for swift and unified action on global climate change. Encyclicals are high-level teaching documents issued by the Pope.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the Pope wrote. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” (25).

Pope Francis hopes that his letter will reach beyond members of the Catholic Church, affecting energy and economic policy at all levels and encouraging a global movement that supports sustainable progress.
“The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice,” the Pope wrote (53).

The New York Times called the encyclical “sweeping in ambition and scope” and said that it blended “a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.” The Observer said it was an “explosive intervention […] set to transform [the] climate change debate.”

The encyclical is vast and includes many important and insightful nuggets that clearly urge governments to work towards enforceable international agreements and show leadership in leading a phase-out of fossil fuels and greater cooperation to address intergenerational equity and common solutions across developed and developing countries. Its influence will likely be felt globally and encourage greater engagement on these issues by key political groups.

Dutch Court Orders Government to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A court in The Hague yesterday ordered the Dutch government to reduce the Netherlands’ greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The ruling came as a result of legal proceedings instituted by The Urgenda Foundation, a citizens’ platform that develops measures to prevent climate change.

In its ruling, The Hague District Court accepted Urgenda’s claim that the government has a legal obligation to protect its citizens from the dangerous effects of climate change. “Due to the severity of the consequences of climate change and the great risk of hazardous climate change occurring—without mitigating measures—the court concludes that the State has a duty of care to take mitigation measures,” said the panel of three judges (4.83).

The court also held that the Dutch government does not avoid liability by stating that its contribution is minor, finding “a sufficient causal link can be assumed to exist between the Dutch greenhouse gas emissions, global climate change and the effects (now and in the future) on the Dutch living climate” (4.90).

The judges ruled that a government plan to cut emissions by only 14–17 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020 was unlawful, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change.

“This is the first decision by any court in the world ordering states to limit greenhouse gas emissions for reasons other than statutory mandates,” wrote Michael Gerrard, Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, in a blog post on the decision. In May, Mr. Gerrard speculated about the cross-jurisdictional effects of an Urgenda victory. “If the Dutch court were to rule against the state in this case,” he said, “that would be a very powerful signal that would probably then lead to similar litigation in many other countries.”

The outcome of the case may spark additional litigation founded on the premise that courts may hold governments liable for failing to take action on climate change. Klimaatzaak, a Belgian citizens’ group, is already pursuing a case modelled on Urgenda’s action, and a group in Norway is working on a challenge to their government’s decision to license new oil blocks in the Arctic, on the ground that it violates a Norwegian constitutional obligation to protect the climate.