Can climate lawsuits help to stop global warming?

Members of youth-led climate organization Aurora hold a demonstration before submitting its lawsuit against the state for their lack of climate work, in Stockholm, Sweden, November 25, 2022. Christine Ohlsson/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

Members of youth-led climate organization Aurora hold a demonstration before submitting its lawsuit against the state for their lack of climate work, in Stockholm, Sweden, November 25, 2022. Christine Ohlsson/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

What’s the context?

A growing number of lawsuits against companies and states could spur greater action to tackle climate change

  • More lawsuits target states over climate policies 
  • Court climate rulings set precedents for fresh cases
  • Investors sue states for losses due to climate laws 

BRUSSELS - Activists young and old, farmers, scientists and Indigenous peoples are filing a growing number of lawsuits against governments and fossil fuel companies to try to slow global warming. 

Dubbed "climate lawfare", the total number of such cases has more than doubled since 2015 to about 2,000 now, according to Climate Change Laws of the World, a database of climate change legislation and policies around the globe. 

Legal experts say cases brought in the past year accusing authorities in the United States and Europe of climate inaction, could have a ripple effect on other lawsuits.

Here's what you need to know about climate litigation.

What is climate change litigation and where is it happening?

Climate change litigation is an emerging field of law in which individuals or groups have taken governments or companies to court to spur climate action, such as phasing out fossil fuels and reducing harmful emissions.

It can also refer to the growing number of legal disputes between investors and states that arise because international treaty provisions allow energy firms to sue governments when their carbon-cutting programmes affect profits.

A United Nations report said last year that such investor-state legal disputes could have a devastating effect on human rights and climate action. 

Most cases - more than 1,500 - have been filed in the United States, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and New York's Columbia University, but the number of lawsuits is rising across the world.  

About 17% of cases are in developing countries, the report said, with the highest number of those in Brazil and Indonesia.

By April 2024, 80 climate change cases had been filed in Brazil, more than 20 of them in the past five years, according to the Research Group on Law, Environment and Justice in the Anthropocene (JUMA), that tracks such litigation.

A small, but growing number of environmental and climate disputes have been brought before courts in Africa, with 10 cases in South Africa, three in Nigeria and two in Kenya in the past 15 years.

The majority of these cases are brought by NGOs and revolve around environmental impact assessments, often for the construction of coal-fired power plants, but also include cases addressing issues such as the right to clean air and water.

The smelter complex in the Andean highland town of La Oroya, Peru. January 30 2017. Mitchell Gilbert/Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA)/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Andre, 15 and Sofia Oliveira, 18 pose for a picture in Almada, Portugal, July 29, 2023. They are part of a group of six that took action in the European court against 32 countries for allegedly failing to do their part to avert climate catastrophe
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Linli Pan-Van de Meulebroeke, a lawyer with EQUAL Partners, poses for a photo at her office in Brussels, Belgium, April 17, 2023
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Which climate cases have marked legal milestones in the past year?

More than 2,000 Swiss women aged over 64 brought a case last year accusing their government of violating their human rights by failing to do enough to combat climate change and putting them at risk of dying during heatwaves.

The European Court of Human Rights this month upheld their complaint - a decision likely to set a legal precedent.

In the first U.S. youth-led climate case to reach trial, 16 plaintiffs, aged between two and 18, filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana over policies prohibiting state agencies from considering climate impacts when approving fossil fuel projects.

A judge ruled in the plaintiffs' favour last year, citing a provision in the state constitution requiring Montana to protect and improve the environment. Other similar youth-driven lawsuits are pending elsewhere in the United States.

Can climate litigation drive change?

Court victories for campaigners are likely to embolden more plaintiffs to bring more cases and the legal precedents already set make it more likely that similar lawsuits will prevail.

The Swiss seniors verdict could influence future decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, which put six other climate cases on hold pending the ruling.

These include a lawsuit against the Norwegian government that alleges it violated human rights by issuing new licences for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea beyond 2035.

Another case to watch, according to legal experts, is that of Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer who filed a lawsuit against German utility RWE. 

Luciano Lliuya is seeking damages from RWE, which he says has emitted 0.5% of humanity's heat-trapping carbon dioxide, causing Andean glaciers to melt, threatening him and 50,000 other residents with deadly floods.

A win for Luciano Lliuya in this case could lead the way to many similar cases around the world from plaintiffs facing other climate change-driven threats and that would represent a big risk for fossil-fuel producing companies.

But testing legal arguments takes time and money, with some cases taking up to a decade to make it to trial. NGO-led human rights cases often have to rely on a combination of donations from philanthropic organisations and individuals, as well as crowdfunding and lawyers working pro bono.

(Reporting by Joanna Gill with additional reporting from Nita Bhalla, David Sherfinski and Andre Cabette Fabio and Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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