A recent climate change court case in the Netherlands is drawing attention around the world, as the ruling goes beyond legal cases elsewhere. It imposes a responsibility on the state to protect its citizens from the impacts of climate change and take the science seriously. This is translated into an unprecedented quantitative target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands by at least 25 per cent in 2020 from the 1990 levels.
The Dutch case was initiated by a small foundation, Urgenda (urgent + agenda), along with hundreds of citizens. They argued that the Netherlands’ commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent in 2020 fell short of the 25-40 per cent norm that developed countries ought to set, both to address climate change and to make room for the emissions of developing countries. In particular, the judgment made it clear that the Netherlands should not hide behind the argument that the solution for climate change cannot rely only on the emissions of a small country.
The problem of climate change is that no country wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions unless everyone else does so. This has meant that countries that don’t take action can ride on the actions taken by others — the classic free rider problem.
This is caused by two factors. The first is the economic and political rich-poor one of who should reduce emissions first and why.
The South, including India, argues that it has a right to develop before it can reduce emissions, saying that uniform reduction in an unequal world leads to inequitable results. The North argues that it is pointless to reduce emissions if the South is allowed to increase emissions; that this will affect its business competitiveness; and that polluting northern industries will shift to the South.
The second factor is social: many people in the North (and rich people in the South) do not feel personally threatened by the impacts of climate change, so the social motivation for action is low. Further, the rich are addicted to their cars, and in many rich countries, private savings and pensions are invested directly or indirectly in the fossil fuel sector.
It is these two factors that have led to the deadlock in climate negotiations at the global level. The impasse is primarily between the U.S., which has refused since the early days of the Noordwijk Conference on Climate Change in 1989 to accept any quantitative commitments, and the developing countries. Had the U.S. implemented its Kyoto Protocol target and participated in the follow-up target set for the 2012-20 period, it would have been diplomatically impossible for the Canadians, Russians, Japanese and New Zealanders to refuse to participate.
It would also have sent very clear messages to China and other countries that the age of fossil fuel is over and there would be no talk of new fracking experiments or exploring oil in the Arctic. And it would have sent a clear message to the developing world that they too have to rapidly switch to renewables.
The problem of the current global governance system is that it is a voluntary collaboration between sovereign states, and selfish politics can hold the entire system to ransom. This, combined with the U.S. using China as an excuse for not taking action, is a storyline that those who understand global politics find hard to accept.
However, the balance of power in a global system is strengthened by non-state actors, who can creatively use the political space in domestic and international arenas to make a change. Social movements have mobilised the courts in many parts of the world to counter the political lock-in by making an appeal to science and justice principles.
While there are at present only a few cases, the initial successes can unleash a global movement that challenges state politics in favour of sustainable development and the protection of people.
The courts are the only state actors that do not put the profit motive above all else. The Dutch case is only in the lower court and can be challenged in the Supreme Court. The decision of the Supreme Court can go either way. But, at the same time, the Dutch state and industrial polluters have been now put on notice, that if they continue to emit without carefully revisiting their business strategy, they may be held liable in the future.
The pressure now needs to build up in the Western world — in particular on those not participating in reducing emissions until 2020. The pressure will simultaneously build up in most developing countries too, as the impact on their water and climate will seriously affect these societies.
It is in the process of interaction between the countervailing powers at the local and the global levels that the very complex problem of climate change will have to be addressed.
This court case sends a serious signal to all developed countries on the way ahead in the next big negotiation in Paris this year.
(Joyeeta Gupta is professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the University of Amsterdam. Email: J.Gupta@uva.nl)