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German Court Sides With Youth Climate Activists to Safeguard Human Rights

From a bird's eye view, there is a large group of people holding banners with an circle opening in the middle.
Protest in Jena, Germany in 2019 organized by Fridays for Future, one of the advocacy organizations represented in the court case. Source: Joachim Aspenlaub Blattboldt via Flickr.

Last month, one of the most significant human rights climate court cases to date reached a resolution. Germany’s highest court, the Federal Court of Justice, ruled on April 29 that the country’s 2019 Climate Protection Act does not go far enough to safeguard the rights of the country’s youth. Siding with youth climate activists, the court ordered the German government to expand existing carbon emission mitigation measures to reach the law’s goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.

The Climate Protection Act, which the court ruled unconstitutional, requires energy, transportation, industry, building, waste, and agriculture sectors to collectively reduce carbon emissions by 55% from 1990 levels. These plans, however, stop at the year 2030. When it was first adopted, the law was widely criticized for its insufficient climate regulations. For the nine Germans in their teens and early twenties that filed lawsuits, the 20 years void of concrete government measures made the law’s 2050 goal unattainable.

When Germany and 194 other states signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, they agreed to work together to ensure that global temperatures would not rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Germany’s Climate Protection Act was meant to establish regulations to meet the country’s nationally determined contribution, an essential part of the Paris Agreement. While Germany’s 2019 Climate Protection Act establishes 10 years of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the young people and the environmental associations that supported them in the lawsuit argued that substantial measures need to be established for 2031 to 2050 to effectively reach the country’s and the agreement’s goals. Additionally, emission reductions in these decades are necessary to safeguard human rights ensured by the German constitution.

On the same day that the court ruled on this landmark case, Bavaria’s environment minister, Thorsten Glauber, announced research findings that Germany’s five glaciers could be gone in a decade. These glaciers, concentrated in Bavaria, have lost two-thirds of their ice in the past decade.

Germany’s glaciers provide water to rivers and streams during droughts, stabilize mountain rocks, and are home to popular ski resorts. In his presentation in Munich, Glauber also recognized their importance as “thermometers for the state of our climate,” alluding to their role as indicators of global climate temperatures. In recent years, many German activists, scientists, and journalists have noted the fragility of the country’s glaciers and the necessary urgency of climate action.

A snowy mountain range with ski lifts against a blue sky.
Ski runs on the Schneeferner Glacier in 2009. Source: Grzegorz Jereczek via Flickr.

Given that Germany’s glaciers could be gone by the 2030s, the court-ordered expansion of climate action is more important than ever. But what is perhaps most significant about this case is its foundation in constitutional and human rights.

Similar cases have been tried around the world with varying degrees of success. In the U.S., 21 young plaintiffs filed a constitutional climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, in 2015 claiming the government’s actions, or lack thereof, have violated their constitutional human rights. This case has faced many hurdles in court and has yet to reach a conclusion. The 2019 Urgenda Climate Case, on the other hand, is an example of another European court ruling in favor of youth activists. The Netherland’s highest court ruled that the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of the threat they pose to human rights. This was the first time that a court had ordered a country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, requiring them to cut the country’s emissions by 25% in comparison to 1990 levels.

Michael Gerrard, an environmental lawyer and founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, spoke with GlacierHub about the significance of the German and Dutch court cases. “These two cases both require national governments to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than they had pledged as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, and not based on specific statutes but rather on human rights and constitutional grounds,” said Gerrard.

While two countries having legal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is important for climate action, it isn’t enough to curtail the world’s rising emissions. What it may do, however, is inspire other citizens, environmental groups, and lawmakers to use the courts to advance climate change action as a way to safeguard human rights. “The Urgenda case inspired many lawsuits around the world,” said Gerrard, “and the German case may further accelerate the attempts to enlist the courts in the fight against climate change.”

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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