Netherlands: Climate activists win against their own government

Friday, December 20th, 2019
6:25 p.m.

No sooner had the judges pronounced their verdict than the climate activists outside of the building in The Hague embraced each other. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands obliges the government to drastically reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions next year. The judges finally confirmed the verdict of a court in 2015. The court ordered The Hague to reduce national emissions by at least 25 percent compared to 1990 by the end of 2020. An appeal against the decision of Friday is no longer possible.


The ruling can have far-reaching consequences: on the one hand, for plaintiffs in other EU countries who are taking action against their governments because of what they consider to be insufficient climate protection. On the other hand for the German energy groups Uniper and RWE. You operate several coal-fired power plants in the Netherlands, some of which were only opened a few years ago. These boilers may now have to be closed much faster than planned. Because at the end of 2018, the country had only achieved CO2 savings of 15 percent. The government said a few days ago that it would implement the Supreme Court's ruling. However it turns out.

Climate change and its consequences would "threaten the life, well-being and living environment of many people, worldwide and also in the Netherlands", the judges write in their reasoning. The European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to life. And according to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, the signatory states are obliged to "take appropriate measures if there is a real and immediate risk to the life and well-being of people and the state knows about it."


Far-reaching court decision in The Hague

"The verdict shows that nobody is powerless"

  It is also up to her that Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government must now cut national CO2 emissions so abruptly. Years ago, the Urgenda Foundation filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of almost 900 Dutch citizens. In 2015 a civil court in The Hague ruled that the Netherlands would have to cut emissions by a quarter by 2020 compared to 1990. The government filed an appeal. When she lost it in 2018 in second instance, she tried again through legal action – and failed again.


Now you're running out of time. The five Dutch coal-fired power plants are to be decommissioned by 2030, a CO2 levy is to be introduced, and solar energy, electric cars and climate-friendly agriculture are to be increasingly promoted. Nevertheless, according to calculations by the state planning office, by the end of 2020 the government will at best get minus 21 percent instead of the prescribed 25 percent. This means that further emergency measures are imminent. It wasn't until November that Rutte's cabinet tightened the speed limit, among other things, because it had to limit nitrogen emissions under pressure from the Supreme Court.

  The plaintiffs triumph. "The verdict shows that no one is powerless and that everyone can make a difference," says Damien Rau, who was involved in the process in 2013 when he was twelve. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, speaks of the "most important court decision on climate change to date worldwide".

What is legally binding?

  Citizens have filed similar lawsuits against energy companies or states dozens of times; many have not yet been decided. Such proceedings are also ongoing in Germany and before the European Court of Justice. The crucial question is often whether climate protection targets issued by politicians are legally binding.


"The Dutch judgment could be a breakthrough," says climate economist Reimund Schwarze from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research. Because more than 40 countries have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, on which the court in The Hague bases its judgment. Their citizens can now rely on the decision of the Dutch Supreme Court in similar lawsuits against their governments.

  "We will soon have a climate protection law in Germany," says Schwarze. "This could offer a very different framework for possible lawsuits than mere political declarations of intent." In all likelihood, the German government will miss the German climate target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990.

"The state probably has to close coal-fired power plants now"

  German power companies now have to worry about their coal-fired power plants in the Netherlands. Following its victory in court, the Urgenda Foundation declares that the government in The Hague must "take further measures to close the gap by 2020 by 25 percent." The state probably now has to close coal-fired power plants that were only opened in 2015 and 2016. This means the hard coal pile in Maasvlakte and Eemshaven. One part is owned by Uniper, the other by RWE.

  At Maasvlakte in particular, controversy is inevitable. Uniper had already prepared a lawsuit against the state for the announcement of the Dutch coal phase-out, which provides for all blocks to be closed by 2030. If Maasvlakte were to shut down even faster, the company would remain investing billions.


RWE faces a similar problem. The group is already burning a significant amount of biomass instead of coal in a smaller Dutch power plant. In the much larger Meiler Eemshaven, however, the share of renewable fuels is still low. Neither of the two groups wanted to comment on the Friday judgment when SPIEGEL asked.

  The decision by the top Dutch judges will also be of great interest to major international investors. Billion-dollar capital providers such as pension funds, life insurers and investment companies are beginning to shift money from the fossil to the renewable sector – or even withdraw it entirely from coal and oil companies. There are mainly financial motives behind this divestment: The financial groups fear that their investments will devalue as a result of abrupt political U-turns or natural disasters.

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