Members of Senior Women for Climate Protection

Members of Senior Women for Climate Protection react in Strasbourg, France, on April 9, 2024 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled the Swiss government has not done enough to protect people from the climate crisis.

(Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images)

In 'Landmark' Ruling, Top EU Court Rules Swiss Climate Inaction Violates Human Rights

"This ruling is a call to action for the climate movement—we will not stop demanding action from governments on their clear obligations, set out in this ruling, to prevent climate catastrophe," said one attorney.

A decision handed down by one of the European Union's top courts on Tuesday should signal to governments across the bloc and beyond that their time may soon be up when it comes to delaying climate action, as the panel ruled the Swiss government has violated the human rights of its senior citizens by refusing to abide by scientists' warnings and swiftly phase out fossil fuel production.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) announced its decisions in three separate climate cases, including one brought by theKlimaSeniorinnen, or Senior Women for Climate Protection, in Switzerland.

The group of about 2,400 women aged 64 and up argued last year that the Swiss government has violated their rights by failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to stop intensifying heatwaves and other climate impacts from affecting citizens.

The plaintiffs cited research showing that older women are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses and death.

Switzerland has pledged to cut planet-heating fossil fuel emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by the end of the decade. In 2021 voters rejected a proposal to tax airline tickets and fuel to help the country meet its goal.

According to the Swiss Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology, Switzerland is warming at twice the rate of the global average.

The Climate Action Tracker has classified Swiss climate policies and actions as "insufficient," partially because it has implemented agreements with other countries to offset its domestic emissions in an attempt to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Gerry Liston, an attorney representing another group of litigants from Portugal, told The New York Times that the ECHR's acknowledgment that Switzerland's policies are not based in science was especially significant.

"No European government's climate policies are aligned with anything near" the Paris climate agreement's goal of limiting planetary heating to 1.5°C, Liston said, "so it will be clear to those working on climate litigation in those countries that there is now a clear basis to bring a case in their national courts."

Joie Chowdhury, senior attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law, said the ruling—the first by an international human rights court on governments' climate inaction—is likely "to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond."

"Today's historic judgment... leaves no doubt: The climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and states have human rights obligations to act urgently and effectively and in line with the best available science to prevent further devastation and harm to people and the environment," said Chowdhury. "The ruling reinforces the vital role of courts—both international and domestic—in holding governments to their legal obligations to protect human rights from environmental harm. It also affirms the power and courage of those who speak out and dare to demand a livable future for all."

The other two cases on which the ECHR ruled Tuesday, finding them "inadmissable," were brought by a former mayor of a town in France and a group of six Portuguese children and young people, ranging in age from 12-25.

Damien Carême, former mayor of Grande-Synthe and now a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, argued France had taken insufficient steps to protect the coastal town from flooding. The ECHR ruled that the case was not admissible because Carême no longer lives in Grande-Synthe.

The six Portuguese plaintiffs had argued that the effects of fossil fuel-driven planetary heating—including heatwaves and wildfires—have and will continue to affect their lives and wellbeing. The court ruled the group had not exhausted all its legal options in Portugal.

The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which represented the Portuguese group, said the court's decision was still "a win for all generations," because the court made clear that "government failure to rapidly cut emissions is a violation of human rights."

"This ruling is a call to action for the climate movement—we will not stop demanding action from governments on their clear obligations, set out in this ruling, to prevent climate catastrophe," said GLAN.

The Council of Europe's 46 members, which includes all 27 E.U. countries, are bound by the ECHR's rulings, and the verdict opens the countries up to similar cases in national courts.

Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the court's mixed rulings "underscore how difficult it can be for impacted communities to demonstrate in a legal setting what science has clearly shown for decades: the direct connection between heat-trapping emissions, climate change, and the extreme weather impacts they are experiencing such as heatwaves and wildfires."

"The uphill battle for climate accountability persists as vulnerable communities bravely challenge entrenched political, economic, and legal systems that have historically prioritized the fossil fuel industry and private interests," said Merner. "The courts still have a critical role to play in holding high-emitting entities accountable for their role in the climate crisis, helping to address historical responsibility for the release of heat-trapping emissions resulting in climate injustice, and protecting human rights for current and future generations."

The ECHR has had six other climate cases on hold pending the decisions handed down Tuesday, including one against the Norwegian government. Plaintiffs in that case argue Norway violated human rights by issuing new licenses for oil and gas drilling in the Barents Sea beyond 2035.

Scientists and the International Energy Agency have said in recent years that there's no place for new fossil fuel production on a pathway to limiting planetary heating to 1.5°C.

Courts in Australia, Brazil, Peru, and South Korea are also considering human rights-based climate cases.

Despite the ECHR's mixed rulings, Merner called the decision regarding Switzerland "groundbreaking."

"This ruling highlights the undeniable link between government climate policies and the fundamental rights to life and family," said Merner. "With extreme weather events like heatwaves becoming more frequent and intense due to fossil fuel exacerbated climate change, this landmark judgment sends a clear message: Governments must strengthen their efforts to combat climate change, not just as a matter of environmental policy, but as a crucial aspect of protecting human rights."

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