Switzerland's climate shortcomings violate human rights, European Court rules

Europe's top human rights court said Tuesday that the Swiss government violated the human rights of its citizens by not doing enough to stop climate change, a landmark ruling that experts say could strengthen activists hoping to use the climate change law. human rights to hold governments to account.

In the case, brought by a group called KlimaSeniorinnen, or Older Women for Climate Protection, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, said Switzerland had failed to meet its climate reduction target. carbon emissions and must take action to address this problem. discordance.

The women, aged 64 and older, said their health was at risk during heat waves linked to global warming. They argued that the Swiss government had violated their rights by not doing enough to mitigate global warming.

It is the latest decision in a larger wave of climate-related lawsuits aiming to push governments to take action against global warming, and countries' national courts have heard similar cases. But experts say it is the first case in which an international court has ruled that governments are legally obliged to meet their climate goals under human rights laws.

“It's the first time an international court clearly states that a climate crisis is a human rights crisis,” said Joie Chowdhury, senior lawyer at the Center for International Environmental Law, an international group that has expressed support for KlimaSeniorinnen's case .

While the decision is legally binding, experts say the ultimate responsibility for complying with it lies with states.

Annalisa Savaresi, a professor of environmental law at the University of Eastern Finland, said she expects the country to take the court's ruling into account. “Simply because Switzerland is Switzerland: it is a state of law, not a rogue state,” she said. “They are eager to be seen as doing the right thing.”

As many other countries fail to meet their climate goals, the ruling could also encourage more members of the public to sue, experts say.

“I expect we will see a wave of lawsuits in other European countries, because most of them have done the same thing,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York. “They have failed to achieve their climate goals and set adequate climate targets.”

The European ruling, Gerrard said, is unlikely to influence court decisions in the United States, where states, cities and counties are suing fossil fuel companies for damages caused by climate change and young people are filing lawsuits over what they say be a problem. failure by state and federal governments to protect them from the effects of global warming.

But, Gerrard said, “the idea that climate change has undermined fundamental rights resonated in all cases.”

The court's ruling on Tuesday covered three cases in which members of the public argued that their governments, by not doing enough to mitigate climate change, were violating the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court has rejected as inadmissible two lawsuits brought by the former mayor of a French coastal town and a group of Portuguese youth.

With heat waves hitting Switzerland in recent summers, the litigants, who have been working on the case for almost a decade with Greenpeace and a team of lawyers, have referred to research showing that older women are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

Four of the women said they had heart and respiratory conditions that put them at risk of death on very hot days. Many other members of the group, who live across Switzerland, said they struggled with tiredness, dizziness and other symptoms due to the extreme heat.

As part of its climate commitments, Switzerland has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. But the ruling states that between 2013 and 2020, Switzerland reduced its emissions only about 11%. Furthermore, he said, the country has failed to use tools that can quantify its efforts to limit emissions, such as a carbon budget.

By failing to act “in a timely, appropriate and coherent manner,” the ruling reads, the Swiss government failed to protect the rights of its citizens.

The court ordered Switzerland to put in place measures to address those shortfalls and to pay KlimaSeniorinnen 80,000 euros, about $87,000, to cover its costs and expenses.

The Swiss government has argued that human rights law does not apply to climate change and that addressing it should be a political process. But the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, which represents the country at the European Court, said in a statement Tuesday that Swiss authorities will analyze the ruling and examine what measures the country will need to take.

The Court said that, given the complexity of the issues involved, the Swiss government was best placed to decide how to proceed. A committee of representatives of the governments of the Court's member states will oversee Switzerland's adoption of the necessary measures to address the ruling.

Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, co-president of KlimaSeniorinnen, called the decision “a victory for all generations” in a statement on Tuesday.

A second case heard by the court focused on a complaint about Grande-Synthe, a French town on the Channel coast that faces an increased risk of flooding due to climate change. Damien Carême, the city's mayor from 2001 to 2019, argued in the lawsuit that France had endangered Grande-Synthe by taking insufficient measures to prevent global warming.

The Court, however, ruled that his case was inadmissible because Mr Carême, who is now a member of the European Parliament, no longer lives in France and therefore no longer has any legally relevant connection with the city.

The court also declared inadmissible a lawsuit brought by six young Portuguese people against 33 signatory countries of the Paris Climate Agreement, including Portugal, for failing to meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plaintiffs argued that the current and future effects of climate change – including heat waves, wildfires and smoke from such wildfires – have affected their lives, well-being and mental health.

The court ruled that the plaintiffs had not exhausted all legal options in Portugal and that filing suit against the other 32 countries would result in an “unlimited expansion” of the states' jurisdiction.

Davide Gelles contributed reporting from New York.

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