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Climate Justice: Stichting Urgenda’s Victory for the Netherlands

In the lead up to the Paris 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the Netherlands made active steps in adhering to international targets for reducing emissions. The original proposed reduction target of 14-17% was rebuked by Dutch civil society, particularly the organisation ‘Stichting Urgenda’, which took the state to court and won on grounds of international responsibility, environmental sustainability and a legal obligation to future Dutch citizens. For the first time ever, a state was sued for the lack of attention to environmental issues, specifically emissions targets. The Netherlands are now on target to reduce emissions by the 25-40% required by the EU's vision for a new agreement for nations by 2030.

Stichting Urgenda is an environmental sustainability group who has visions of a carbon neutral Netherlands. The reasoning that grounded their legal challenge drew upon the targets and recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as they argued that the proposed targets for emissions reductions were too small for an Annex 1 state. The Netherlands belongs to the group of prosperous countries that are at the greatest risk of suffering considerable economic losses due to climate change, due to an accelerated rise in sea levels, increasing storm surges, and the growing risks to water drainage of rivers. These effects of climate change will force the Netherlands to invest in expensive facilities to protect its inhabitants, property and economic prosperity against flooding. Climate change is not just an environmental issue for the Netherlands; it impacts national security - economic and otherwise. Urgenda argues that the all-encompassing impacts of climate change provide an imperative to more significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The goals of Urgenda are stated as preventing global temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the goals of the European delegation to the Paris Climate Change Conference 2015.

In upholding Urgenda’s case, the district court in The Hague drew on a range of domestic and international legal sources to find that the Netherlands owed a duty of care to its citizens to take measures to mitigate climate change, noting that:

… given its duty of care, the state must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change.

As a leading Annex 1 state, it was considered to be the direct responsibility of the Netherlands to make progressive steps in tackling climate change. Urgenda succeeded in compelling at least 25% reductions in emissions by 2020, as "anything less would be unlawful to Urgenda". In its finding for Urgenda, the court reasoned that the state plays a crucial role in transitioning to a sustainable society. Due to the domestic pressure to reprioritise environmental sustainability, supported by this ruling, the Netherlands can legitimately push the agenda proposed by the European Union at Paris 2015, targeted at reducing emissions by between 25-40% by 2020.

The Dutch climate change case Urgenda represents a truly landmark decision for civil society, signifying its progressive power to push environmental agendas, and moves towards revolutionising systems of environmental governance. The decision demonstrates that empowering civil society to engage in global environmental diplomacy provides valuable expertise to governments, helping them reach more effective agreements. In addition, it provides legitimacy to intergovernmental negotiations and thus mitigates the “democratic deficit” in global policy making, by incorporating the preferences of both domestic political movements and the general population.

Urgenda’s ability to influence the environmental discourse of a nation is a promising step towards progressing into a global civil society independent of states, with civil society wielding considerable power to influence global commitments to climate change. National governments and institutions should be accountable for the environment. The Urgenda case for climate change has demonstrated that they may, legitimately, be held accountable by civil society. If progressing to carbon neutrality is an absolute goal, the ability of civil governance to push this agenda should be recognised as a truly remarkable step towards finding a solution to climate change. Extrapolating this domestic action into the international stage, whether or not this action creates a precedent for other civil society groups in nations such as Australia or the US is unknown. However, it has certainly placed a significant stepping stone in the right direction for climate justice and civil society.

Mitchell Travers is currently finishing his undergraduate degree at Sydney University, majoring in government and international relations. He has keen interest in climate change, energy security as well as international security affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image: Director of Stichting Urgenda, Marjan Minnesma.

Image credit: MVO Nederland (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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