Science & Environment

Climate change: Is the Dutch court ruling 'a game changer'?

Wind Image copyright SPL
Image caption Wind turbines near Rotterdam

It reads like the script of a movie. Climate change campaigners go to court to force their government to take tougher action on greenhouse gas emissions.

But it became reality in a Dutch court on Wednesday, when a judge ruled that The Netherlands must do more to combat the threat of climate change.

As a low-lying country, the country is particularly vulnerable to flooding with around half of its territory - where much of its population lives - below sea level.

An effort is underway to upgrade the thousands of miles of dykes and dams that act as flood defences.

As the planet warms, scientists say these will no longer be able to hold up against rising sea levels.

And campaigners Urgenda, who brought the case, accuse the government of putting too much emphasis on mitigation rather than meeting international obligations to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

The court said that the Dutch Government's current plan to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020 was less than the 25-40% international norm for industrialised nations.

Under the ruling, The Netherlands has to cut emissions by at least a quarter on 1990 levels by 2020.

The decision is legally binding, but the government has the option to appeal.

It is expected to debate the issue in parliament after the summer recess.

A spokesman for the Dutch environment ministry said it was examining the ruling.

"We and Urgenda share the same goal," Dutch deputy environment minister Wilma Mansveld added. "We just hold different opinions regarding the manner in which to attain this goal."

Way forward

So what are the government's options for slashing greenhouse gas emissions?

Coal, oil and gas still provide much of the country's energy mix, with renewable energy coming mainly from on-shore wind and biofuels.

In 2013, renewables supplied about 4% of energy demand, putting The Netherlands behind its neighbours Germany and Denmark, and most other EU member states.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption As a low-lying country, The Netherlands is vulnerable to sea level rise

Dennis van Berkel, of Urgenda, says meeting the new target is "very doable".

The pressure group wants a focus on reducing the burning of coal - the "dirtiest" fossil fuel - and measures such as improving energy efficiency in homes.

"There are a lot of possibilities out there that do not cost a lot," he said.

The environmental law group ClientEarth, which recently took legal action against the UK Government over breaches of air pollution, called the ruling "courageous and visionary".

"The Dutch court's ruling should encourage courts around the world to tackle climate change now," said James Thornton.

The case is thought to be the first in Europe in which citizens try to hold a state responsible for lack of action on climate change.

It is also thought to be the first to use human rights legislation as a basis to protect people from climate change, with similar cases being prepared in Belgium, Norway and The Philippines.

Coming in the same month that Pope Francis released an encyclical on the environment, civil society is heaping the pressure on politicians to forge a new deal on climate change at a key UN conference at the end of the year.

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