2023 is a watershed year for climate litigation globally. This is particularly true in Europe, where for the first time the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will hear and make a decision regarding three lawsuits challenging governments’ responses to the climate crisis. These three lawsuits will go down in history as the European Climate Trials.

The first two hearings will happen on March 29th in Strasbourg. These lawsuits were brought by Swiss Senior Women and Damien Carême, French Green party MEP. After the Summer recess, the ECHR will hear the Duarte Agostinho case in which six Portuguese youth suing over thirty countries European countries, including all EU member states, Switzerland, Russia, Turkey, Norway, and the UK.

The allegations

The plaintiffs are challenging governments’ failure to protect their human rights from the effects of dangerous climate change. The Swiss Senior Women and Green MEP, Damien Carême, claim that Switzerland’s and France’s climate policies are failing to protect their human rights. The Portuguese youth make the same argument against the 32 countries they are suing and further argue that these countries must force companies, such as fossil fuel giants and major banks, to rapidly reduce their contributions to global emissions.

The potential impacts 

The outcomes of these European climate trials could mark historic changes for the continent’s climate action. Currently, none of the countries being sued have sufficient climate targets to keep temperature increase within the 1.5°C limit. The ECHR has the power to order countries to take immediate action to mitigate climate change in order to stop violating human rights. If these cases are successful, European governments will be legally bound to do this immediately.

Given the potential impact of the ruling, the Strasbourg Court’s decision will be written about in law and history books. The European Court of Human Rights is tasked for the first time with holding European states accountable for violating human rights by not taking sufficient measures to combat climate change.

The precedent

The judgment that the plaintiffs in the European Climate Trials seek would set a ground-breaking precedent for climate cases around Europe. A binding judgment against over thirty European countries would massively strengthen the position of activists bringing climate cases before the domestic courts of these countries. 

What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe. The precedent set by these cases can influence the outcome of other lawsuits worldwide. There are currently over 80 cases questioning governments’ responses to the climate crisis. In 2023 several other climate cases will be heard around the world, including in Australia and Italy. At the same time, the rulings of the South Korean and Ontario climate cases are also expected. 

The power of the movement 

Precedent set by climate litigation equips activists with new tools to pressure big emitters. Governments might be falling short of delivering climate policies that safeguard people’s futures, but courts have the power to hold them accountable. Previous rulings in the Netherlands and Germany have brought breakthroughs in domestic climate policymaking. The European Climate Trials hold similar potential and will be important events to watch in 2023.

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