Apr 9, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Swiss women win landmark climate change ruling

KlimaSeniorinnen members in Strasbourg, France, on March 2023.

Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz members in Strasbourg, France, in March 2023. Photo: Shervine Nafissi/Greenpeace

Europe's highest human rights court on Tuesday sided with a group of 2,000 Swiss women over 64 years old who sued their government for not doing enough to combat climate change.

Why it matters: It's a landmark ruling that helps to determine to what extent almost all European countries violate the human rights of their citizens by not adequately mitigating the effects of climate change.

Catch up quick: The group, called Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz ("Association of Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland"), claimed that the Swiss government's inadequate climate policies violate their right to life and other guarantees under the European Convention on Human Rights.

  • Only senior women joined the lawsuit because people 55 and older face an increased risk of dying from heat-related illnesses, and older women specifically are more at risk to heat than older men.
  • By not sufficiently working to prevent climate change, the government has contributed to their distinct increased risk of dying from extreme heat, they alleged.

Context: The case was before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which handles alleged violations of rights set out in the convention.

  • The court's jurisdiction spans almost every country in Europe except for the Vatican City, Belarus and Russia.

Zoom in: The court found that Article 8 of the convention, "encompasses a right for individuals to effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life."

  • It said the Swiss government had failed to meet greenhouse gas emission goals and that there had been "critical gaps" in its effort to enact laws to combat climate change.
  • It also criticized the government for not taking taking into consideration "the compelling evidence concerning climate change" and for not taking KlimaSeniorinnen's complaint seriously.

Zoom out: Specific to KlimaSeniorinnen's case, human-caused climate change is making extreme heat around the globe far more likely, putting more people — especially older adults — at risk of heat-related illnesses.

By the numbers: Switzerland, which has a population around 8.7 million, has lower total and per-capita direct emission levels than most European countries, and in 2021, its emissions had fallen by around 19% compared to its 1990 total.

  • However, as one of the wealthiest counties in the world, its citizens consume resources at unsustainable rates and are "living at the expense of future generations and of other regions of the world," per the country's statistics office.

Between the lines: The ECHR has never directly ruled on a climate-change related issue before.

  • It decided in 2003 that the convention does not provide a right to a healthy environment, as its articles are meant to protect people and not the environment, which is covered by other international laws.
  • However, in subsequent rulings, it has said that certain dangerous environmental activities, such as the mismanagement of waste sites or inadequately mitigating natural disasters threats, can violate certain rights.

The big picture: There were two other climate change cases before the ECHR's Grand Chamber on Tuesday, both of which the court denied.

  • One was filed by six youth against Portugal and 32 other countries, alleging that the governments violated their rights and degraded their homes and health by failing to slash their emissions and contributing to recent forest fires, heatwaves and winter storms in Portugal.
  • The third case was a lawsuit from a French mayor seeking stronger climate change laws from the French government.
  • In general, the number of climate change cases around the world has more than doubled since 2017, jumping to at least 2,180 in 2022 according to a United Nations and Columbia University report published earlier this year.

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