Portuguese children sue European countries over climate change

Portuguese children sue 33 countries over climate change at European court

Portuguese children sue 33 countries over climate change including the UK

In the latest example of a wave of climate litigation across the world, six young people this week filed a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, asking for accountability around the climate crisis.

In what is being described as an unprecedented climate case, four children and two young adults from Portugal have filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against 33 industrialized countries. 

The young people, supported by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), allege the countries — which include Germany, the UK, Russia and Portugal — have failed to enact the emission cuts needed to protect their futures. 

The case focuses on countries whose policies lawyers argue are too weak to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius Paris Agreement goal. They cite the country ratings of the Climate Action Tracker

The plaintiffs range from age 8 to 21 and come from Lisbon and Leiria in Portugal. The case states climate change poses a rising threat to the six young people’s lives and physical and mental well-being. It invokes human rights arguments — including the right to life, a home and to family — as well as claiming discrimination. 

“Our generation is living in an age of great danger and uncertainty, so our voice must be heard,” said Andre Oliveira, 12, whose father is translating for him.

Andre, 12, and his sister Sofia, 15, are two of the six young people filing the climate case in Strasbourg 

The climate case is the first of its kind to be filed at the European Court of Human Rights

“It’s clearly not the case that young people are the only people vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” said Gerry Liston, legal officer at GLAN. “But because they stand to endure the worst impacts, we’re saying the effects of failing to adequately address greenhouse gas emissions amounts to unlawful discrimination on the grounds of age.”  

“It’s not about finger-pointing, but all about giving all these 33 governments a chance to act better and faster,” said Andre. “It is a matter of human rights and that’s why we’re going all the way to Strasbourg.”

A wildfire in Monchique in Portugal in 2018
A wildfire in Monchique in Portugal in 2018. The case was initiated in 2017 after devastating forest fires in Portugal killed over 120 people. Photograph: Filipe Farinha/EPA

A first at Strasbourg 

While there are numerous recent and ongoing climate cases, many also involving young plaintiffs, it is the first of its kind to be brought to Strasbourg. The international court, set up in 1959, deals with alleged violations of civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The pressing need for significant and wide-scale action among many large emitters warranted going directly to Strasbourg, rather than through domestic courts which is more common, explains Liston. “A decision from the European Court of Human Rights is urgently required in order to provide the legally binding decision that would then filter down and prompt the change that’s required at the domestic level.” 

According to GLAN, if successful, the 33 countries would be legally bound to tackle overseas contributions to climate change, including that of multinational companies, as well as ramping up emissions cuts. While the timescale ahead and whether the court will decide if the case is admissible is not yet clear, Liston said they have applied for the case to be given priority. 

Their lawyers hope the court will find the states in breach of their obligation to protect the applicants’ rights, and order them to step up measures to cut emissions while setting an influential precedent for national courts, added Liston.

As governments now prepare to spend huge sums on reviving their economies after the coronavirus pandemic, Mota urged them to invest in green technologies rather than fossil fuels.

“Most of the world is following the advice of scientists to fight this virus, however governments are not doing what science says when it comes to fighting climate change,” she added.

Other recent climate lawsuits have produced mixed results.

In December, the Netherlands’ Supreme Court ruled in favour of a campaign group’s demand that the Dutch government move faster to cut carbon emissions.

But in January a U.S. court dismissed a case brought by 21 youths who accused the government of infringing their rights to life and liberty.

A year ago, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other child petitioners filed a lawsuit with a United Nations’ committee, saying five countries that are substantial emitters of greenhouse gases were undermining their rights.

In May, Brazil, France and Germany – three respondents in the complaint – said charges against them lacked jurisdiction and were unsubstantiated. The case is still under consideration.

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