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The climate crisis clutters the courts: governments in the dock

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The climate crisis clutters the courts: governments in the dock

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If governments flout international climate agreements and CO2 emissions continue to increase, there is another way to force them to act: take them to court. Climate litigation is a phenomenon destined to increase as NGOs learn from successful cases and judges draw inspiration from jurisprudential precedents to issue increasingly effective sentences. «The first wave of lawsuits was successful almost only in the USA, but now the phenomenon is starting to take root in Europe too», explains Barbara Pozzo, a jurist expert in environmental law and professor of comparative law at the University of Insubria.

One of the decisive factors in the surge in lawsuits was the signing of the Paris Agreement, which imposes binding targets on signatories. Since then the number of climate causes has taken off”, specifies Pozzo. According to the latest Global Trends in Climate Litigation report from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, nearly 2,400 climate lawsuits have been filed since the 1980s, two-thirds of which have occurred since COP21 in Paris.

The Court of Justice called to express its opinion

The next stage will pass through the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which this year is expected to rule for the first time on the legal obligation of governments to act against the climate crisis, at the request of the United Nations assembly. The resolution, promoted by Vanuatu, with which the UN requested an advisory opinion from its main judicial body, marks a decisive step for climate litigation. The Court is in fact called to rule on the obligations of States to reduce fossil emissions “for the benefit of States and future generations”, but also on the legal consequences for those who violate these obligations. This raises the delicate question of the responsibility of greenhouse gas producers for the damage caused to other countries, in particular to small island states, as well as to the populations and individuals affected.

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The protest started by a group of students

The approval of the general assembly was first and foremost a victory for civil society and in particular for a group of students from the university of Port-Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, who took up a similar project in Palau and the Marshall Islands, which had failed in 2011. A decade later, the context was much more favorable: the youth petition progressed to state level and then the Vanuatu government took it to the Pacific Islands Forum in July 2022, who approved the request at the United Nations and eventually won the support of the general assembly.

The aim is above all to influence climate negotiations and support cooperation, helping to provide legal arguments for the most vulnerable states. The Court’s advisory opinions, in fact, do not have binding legal value, but they have a high moral authority and contribute to the development of the law by providing decisive interpretative elements for cases brought at a national level.

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