Apr 10, 2024 - Energy & Environment

European court ruling on climate may affect pending cases, including in U.S.

Illustration of a gavel hitting the floor and generating ripples.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A groundbreaking climate ruling by the European Court of Human Rights could influence cases on the other side of the Atlantic, and in other tribunals.

Why it matters: Tuesday's ruling may influence near-term European policy and three key international cases in particular.

Zoom in: Legal scholars said the court's findings may affect the 32 ECHR countries' climate policies, since it establishes new, legally binding obligations on European member states to meet their climate goals and enact policies for addressing the problem.

  • Of particular focus may be net zero emissions plans for individual countries. Switzerland has such a goal enshrined into law following a nationwide vote.
  • Climate policies in nations affected by the ECHR ruling could soon be contested using this case, as some of them rely on controversial offsets to make the emissions math work in the end.

What they're saying: "I expect to see several other lawsuits in those countries based on this decision," Michael Gerrard, founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told Axios in an interview.

  • Jarryd Page, a staff attorney at the Environmental Law Institute, agreed. He tells Axios: "It will likely cause countries to reassess the nature and strength of their climate commitments," specifically how they account for emissions cuts and whether they have met previous commitments.

Catch up quick: The case was brought by a group of Swiss women over the age of 64, who claimed the government's inadequate climate policies violated their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The intrigue: In the near term, there are three pending cases before other international tribunals that the ECHR ruling could sway, climate law experts told Axios.

  • These cases include a request for an advisory opinion from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the responsibilities of countries to address climate change's impacts on the marine environment, including via ocean warming and sea level rise.
  • There is also a pending request for an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice, also brought by a group of countries in the Pacific. And still another advisory opinion on climate is due from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
  • The Swiss case shifts the expectations for rulings in the other cases.
  • "I think it does increase the likelihood of favorable rulings of the three other international tribunals," Gerrard said.

Context: The ECHR case could also affect a small subset of pending U.S. climate litigation, Gerrard said.

  • "I'm sure the decision will be cited in the cases raising constitutional theories, especially Hawaii and Montana, where there are existing cases," he said.

Yes, but: Tribunals like the ECHR might not be taking the most expansive view of climate cases possible.

  • At the same time this ruling came down, the court also denied a case filed by six youth in Portugal against their government and 32 other nations, which alleged that government emissions contributed to recent forest fires and heat waves, thereby violating their rights.

Zoom out: Mark Gibney, a political scientist and human rights expert at UNC-Asheville, said European and American courts have taken a "territorial view of the world," allowing citizens of a country to sue their own government over climate change harms, but not to take on others.

  • This is despite the global distribution of greenhouse gas emissions and impacts, he told Axios in an interview. (Gibney submitted legal arguments to the ECHR in the Portugal case.)
  • But Tuesday's denial, and this trend in European and U.S. courts, may not cause the other tribunals, such as the ICJ, from taking the same, more limited view, Gibney said.

The bottom line: The ECHR ruling adds to a growing body of human rights-related legal outcomes as climate cases wend their way through the global judiciary.

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