The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is hearing for the first time today about possible state failure to combat climate change. The background to this are lawsuits from Switzerland, France and Portugal. Depending on the outcome of the proceedings, things could get really uncomfortable for governments.

what it’s about

This summer, three lawsuits will be heard before the ECtHR dealing with responsibility for climate change. The climate seniors, an association of Swiss pensioners, initiated and supported by Greenpeace, are the first to do so. “What is special about us is that we are the only group of old activists,” says the 73-year-old Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti of the dpa.

The climate seniors argue that their age makes them particularly vulnerable to climate change, for example due to extreme heat waves. On the same day, the case of a French mayor who is suing for compliance with the Paris climate goals will also be heard. Later in the summer, Portuguese youth also took action against 33 member states of the Council of Europe.

What makes the negotiation special

“The ECtHR has dealt with environmental emissions – noise or air pollution – before, but never with a country’s CO2 emissions,” says international law expert Birgit Peters from the University of Trier. That is why the proceedings for the complaint of the climate seniors are awaited with particular excitement.

“There are signs that the court will take the complaint from the climate seniors as an opportunity to work out uniform principles for all three similar cases,” says environmental lawyer Johannes Reich from the University of Zurich.

As the odds are

Precisely because environmental law issues have not played a major role before the ECtHR, it is very difficult to make a prediction. “The range of possible decisions that the court can make is therefore very broad: it ranges from the inadmissibility of the lawsuit to detailed judicial guidelines for Swiss climate policy,” says Reich.

What does that have to do with Germany?

Should the climate seniors win, that would initially only bind Switzerland. But: The ECtHR, based in Strasbourg, France, is part of the Council of Europe and is responsible for compliance with the Human Rights Convention. The Council of Europe includes the EU states, but also other large countries such as Turkey or Great Britain. If this supranational court now spoke out in favor of stricter requirements for climate protection, that would definitely have a big signal effect.

“If general statements were made that human rights justify obligations in the context of climate change, other contracting states of the European Convention on Human Rights must also observe this type of interpretation,” says Peters. But: It is difficult to derive concrete policy recommendations for Germany from this. States have a wide discretion in this regard.

What international developments are there

Lawsuits for climate protection are in vogue. According to the Grantham Institute of the London School of Economics, more than 2000 climate lawsuits have been filed worldwide, a quarter of them between 2020 and 2022. There could soon be several exciting developments: The island state of Vanuatu in the South Pacific wants to involve the International Criminal Court for more climate protection.

Climate lawsuits have also been filed in the USA, Brazil and Sweden. And in Germany? Several lawsuits against car manufacturers have recently failed. Climate protectors are now looking forward to the Higher Regional Court in Hamm. There, evidence is being taken in the case of a Peruvian farmer against the energy producer RWE.

How it goes on

A verdict is not expected until autumn at the earliest, but it is more likely that it will not be until next year. With the preliminary decision to conduct the hearing and hearing before the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice, the climate seniors believe that the fundamental importance of the lawsuits is underlined.

“We hope for a leading judgment that climate protection is a human rights issue and not just a mere declaration of intent,” says climate senior Stefanie Brander. Climate policy should not be a legal vacuum where everyone can “muddle along,” adds Wydler-Wälti.