As the effects of climate change worsen, citizens are taking their governments to court to ask for more effective action. Following favorable rulings across several European countries, now it was the turn of Germany – with the country’s highest court recently siding with a group of young campaigners in a landmark climate case.
Germany’s Constitutional Court has called current official climate plans “incompatible with fundamental rights” as they lack specificity and “irreversibly offload major emissions reduction burdens” onto the next decade. It gave the government until the end of next year to set clearer targets to reduce greenhouse emissions starting in 2031. It
“These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030,” the court wrote. “Therefore, the legislator should have taken precautionary steps to mitigate these major burdens.”
A group of nine climate activists brought the case to court, with the backing of environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and Fridays for Future. Luisa Neubauer, one of the plaintiffs, described the decision as a “huge win for the climate movement”.
A HUGE WIN FOR THE CLIMATE MOVEMENT! 🔥 One year ago, we filed a case against the German government & its climate law. Today, the German constitutional court has decided that climate justice is a fundamental right. Today’s inaction mustn’t harm our freedom & rights in the future.
— 🔴 Luisa Neubauer (@Luisamneubauer) April 29, 2021
Following the announcement, German organization Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) tweeted a letter written by an 11-year-old girl (in German) in 2019, which had led to its own involvement in the case. “Politicians aren’t taking the impending climate catastrophe seriously enough. I want people in 100 to 150 years to still know what snow is,” she wrote.
The main issue at stake is Germany’s 2019 Climate Change Act, which commits the country to reducing its emissions by 55% by 2030 (relative to 1990 levels). While it sets upper limits for emissions in various sectors, it doesn’t provide specific targets in line with the longer-term goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
Germany’s emissions are slowly decreasing, but not fast enough, many are arguing.
By not setting specific-enough targets for the following years, the act violates the fundamental right to a humane future, the plaintiffs argued — and the court agreed, arguing that the provisions to reduce emissions from 2031 onwards aren’t “sufficient to ensure that the necessary transition to climate neutrality is achieved in time.”
It’s a landmark decision that could have important repercussions in the country.
“Tomorrow’s freedom and fundamental rights must not be burned up by our emissions today — there is an obligation to ensure this protection through a science-based climate protection law,” Christoph Bals, executive director of the Germanwatch environmental group, said in a statement. “This ruling will be a key reference point.”
The court rejected other arguments filed by the plaintiffs, claiming they couldn’t prove the German government had violated its constitutional duty to protect them from the risks of climate change. Still, it acknowledged that the planet’s current generation “must not be allowed to consume large portions” of the carbon budget.
The German government will now have until the end of December 2022 to implement legislation that specifies clearer reduction targets for the period after 2030. German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier told The Guardian the ruling was “big and meaningful” and anticipated a draft bill will soon be presented by the government.
“To ensure that we do not lose any time, I will present the cornerstones for a climate protection law that is further developed along these lines and creates long-term planning security before the end of the summer,” Environmental minister Svenja Schulze, said in a statement. “This decision is a clear boost for climate protection.”
Activists in other countries have attempted to fight climate change through the legal system, some with more luck than others. In 2015, campaigners in the Netherlands filed a lawsuit arguing the government wasn’t protecting its citizens. In 2019, the Supreme Court asked the government to cut emissions by at least 25% by 2020.