A Win for the Environment: Dutch Government Ordered by The Hague to Reduce Greenhouse Emissions by 2020

In a recent judgment handed down by The Hague District Court, the Dutch government has been ordered to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25% before 2020.

The action, based in tort, was brought before the court by 886 Dutch citizens. It was argued that the government has a legal obligation to protect its people against looming dangers and that this extends to global warming, particularly given the vulnerability of the Netherlands to rising sea levels. The court found it had jurisdiction to make a ruling based on its fundamental power to prevent harm.

The ruling provides that:

The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment. The State is responsible for effectively controlling the Dutch emission levels. Moreover, the costs of the measures ordered by the court are not unacceptably high. Therefore, the State should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts. Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.

With this order, the court has not entered the domain of politics. The court must provide legal protection, also in cases against the government, while respecting the government’s scope for policymaking. For these reasons, the court should exercise restraint and has limited therefore the reduction order to 25%, the lower limit of the 25%-40% norm.

It has been suggested that the court impinged upon the role of the government by making a ruling that effectively orders a change in government policy. Given that a judge is appointed rather than elected, it could perhaps be argued that the separation of powers has been compromised.

The judgment is a landmark decision and may result in similar decisions being handed down in other jurisdictions. Similar actions are currently being pursued in Belgium and Norway. The Dutch government is able to appeal the decision, however, at this stage it is not known whether they will pursue the matter further.

Questions have been raised regarding the possible commercial implications of the decision, particularly on the coal, oil and gas industries. The Dutch government may resort to imposing sanctions on emissions produced by certain entities and industries in order to comply with the orders made by the court. The broader implications for global industry may be considerable in the event that other countries follow suit and take legal action against climate change.

If you believe you may have a claim against the local, State, or Commonwealth governments, McLaughlins Lawyers Litigation Department has a history of success and can advise you.

Author: Oliver Peacock

Partner: Ian Kennedy

Date: 23/07/2015