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Landmark ruling confirms ECHR position on climate change protection


The European Court ruling that Switzerland’s climate inaction violates human rights is a landmark case which confirmed climate change protection falls within the scope of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

There is no right of appeal with the judgment legally binding and it comes at a time when ESG governance, disclosure, financial regulation and litigation have become key issues as climate change impacts on nations, corporates and financial institutions in the face of increased scrutiny.

The ECHR ruling can trickle down to influence the law in 46 countries in Europe including the UK and legal experts believe it could initiate additional action against states that are lagging behind in their climate targets and implementation of policies and measures.

The court dismissed two other cases brought by six Portuguese young people and a former French mayor. Both argued that European governments had failed to tackle climate change quickly enough, violating their rights.

The case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, was brought by a Swiss association whose members include more than 2,000 elderly women and four women aged over 80 who are concerned about the impact of global warming on their living conditions and health. They argued that the Swiss authorities are not taking sufficient action to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Court declared the complaint of the four individual applicants inadmissible, however, the Swiss association had the right to bring a complaint. The Court ruled that there had been critical gaps in the process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework, including a failure by the Swiss authorities to quantify national greenhouse gas (GHG) emission limits, through a carbon budget or otherwise. Switzerland had also failed to meet its past GHG emission reduction targets.

The case of Carême v. France concerned a complaint by a former resident and mayor of a French municipality, alleging that France had not taken sufficient measures to prevent global warming. The Court declared the application inadmissible on formal grounds, as the applicant appeared to have no relevant links with the municipality and no longer lived in France.

In Portugal, the case of Duarte Agostinho et al. v. Portugal concerned the present and future severe effects of climate change. Their complaints were also declared inadmissible on formal grounds as the Court found that the applicants had not pursued any legal proceedings in Portugal before resorting to the European Court. The Court found that there were no grounds in the ECHR for extending extraterritorial jurisdiction in the manner requested by the applicants.

These three rulings follow the 2019 case in the Supreme Court of the Netherlands which handed down its decision in the Urgenda climate case, finding that by the end of 2020 the Dutch government had to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent compared to 1990 levels.

The International Court of Justice and the Inter American Court of Human Rights have cases pending which relate to the human rights impacts of climate change.

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