Netherlands ordered to cut greenhouse gas emissions in landmark court decision

The decision came after 900 Dutch citizens took the government to court in April to demand action against climate change.

Peter Dejong/AP
Urgenda Foundation lawyer Roger Cox, right, proposes a toast on the steps of the court house in a scene setup by TV in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, June 24, 2015.

On Wednesday, a district court ordered the Dutch government to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. The decision came after 900 Dutch citizens took the government to court in April to demand action against climate change, ABC reported.

The case began in November 2012 when the Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch environmental group, wrote a letter to the government that requested action and a call for "crowd pleading" that would allow other Dutch citizens to support the case and get on board as co-plaintiffs, the foundation wrote on its website. 

Marjan Minnesma, who heads the group, said its goal was to get The Hague to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels.

"The state must do more to reverse the imminent danger caused by climate change, given also its duty to protect and improve the environment,” the court ruling said.

The court’s decision is being seen not only a victory for environmentalists, but also for human rights advocates worldwide. This is the first time European citizens have attempted to hold the state accountable for potentially devastating inaction on climate change. It’s also the first case in the world in which human rights are used as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change, according to the Urgenda Foundation.

The group referred to the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations and argued that, contrary to public opinion, governments have a legal obligation to avert the harmful effects of climate change based on existing international human rights law, environmental law, and tort law. 

The government has already agreed to close overseas coal plants, increase the use of windmills and solar energy, and drastically reduce gas extractions in the north of the country, the BBC reported. Yet this court decision puts pressure on the country to speed up the process and become more energy efficient within the next five years.

Greenpeace congratulated the environmental group in a hopeful tweet Wednesday.

In April, the Huffington Post reported that other similar European efforts have been surfacing. In December 2014, a Belgian non-profit group called Climate Case published an open letter to Belgian authorities presenting legal, environmental, and humanitarian arguments for emission cuts. It planned to start a lawsuit against the government and has already gathered over 8,000 supporters.

These achievements offer a glimpse of hope for skeptics who have been doubtful about global plans to tackle climate change in advance of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change conference, taking place in Paris this December.

Countries are obliged to publish information on their own efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The 28-member European Union said it would reduce emissions by 40 per cent compared to 1999 levels by 2030, while the United States, the world's second-largest polluter after China, said it wanted to reduce emissions by between 26 and 28 percent by 2025.

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