In June 2015, the Hague District Court ordered the Dutch state to take more action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands. The case is currently under appeal, but is significant because it is the first time a court has ordered a government to strengthen its climate change policy in this way.

The case was brought by Urgenda, an NGO focused on climate change, on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens. Urgenda argued that a global temperature rise of 2°C would bring catastrophic consequences, and that the Dutch state has an obligation to control the GHG emissions occurring within The Netherlands. The case was based on a Dutch law concept of the duty of care to protect and improve the living environment.

The Dutch government has set a target to reduce GHG emissions by 17 percent by 2020 (relative to 1990 levels). Urgenda argued that this is not enough to control the temperature increase, and is not sufficient to address the Dutch contribution to the global total of GHG emissions.

The Dutch state defended the claim, arguing that its current policies, together with international efforts, could limit the global temperature increase. It also argued that the court should not dictate to the state on matters of policy.

The Hague District Court used the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to interpret the state's duty of care. The court ruled that the 17 percent target was below the standard considered necessary by climate change science and policy, and therefore that the Dutch government must reduce emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020.

The Dutch state is appealing the judgment, and the Deputy Minister for the Environment said the government will comply until the appeal is heard, but that important clarification is required— “the government is seeking to determine how much control judges can have over the future polices of the state”.

A growing trend?

This case is the first of a kind, but the use of human rights to challenge policy and government decisions could be seen more often in environment cases. In a similar case brought by Client Earth in the UK, the Supreme Court ordered the UK Government to reconsider whether its air quality improvement plans were compliant with EU standards. However, this case goes a step further.

The Dutch duty of care is not easily applied to English law, but activists are considering using this approach in other jurisdictions. A group of nearly 9,000 citizens have signed up as co-plaintiffs to support Climate Case in Belgium which is asking the courts to force the government to take more substantive action. The potential ramifications of this latest set of cases goes far beyond changing environmental law, into all realms of policy making.