The ECHR examines the “climate inaction” of 32 States

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is examining greenhouse gas emissions in 32 states on Wednesday at the request of six young Portuguese who hope to advance the fight against global warming.

The case, which arrived before the ECHR in 2020, benefited from priority treatment, and will be debated from 9:15 a.m. (07:15 a.m. GMT) before the most solemn formation of the Court, the Grand Chamber, composed of 17 judges.

The applicants accuse the 27 states of the European Union as well as Russia, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway and the United Kingdom of not respecting the commitments made within the framework of the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 aimed at limiting the rise in temperatures.

They assure that “climate inaction” has consequences on their health and their living conditions, in particular in violation of the “right to life” and the “right to respect for private life” enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of human rights.

“Without urgent action to reduce emissions, the place where I live will soon become an unbearable furnace,” says Martim Duarte Agostinho, 20, who gave his name to the case. “It pains me to know that European governments could do much more to prevent this and are choosing not to.”

He and the five other plaintiffs, aged 11 to 24, began the procedure to go to court after having experienced firsthand the fires which burned tens of thousands of hectares and left more than 100 dead in their country in 2017 .

Their approach “could represent a decisive step forward in climate litigation,” believes Catherine Higham, political science researcher at the London School of Economics. “If successful, governments will need to change course and reduce emissions more quickly to show they are complying with the decision.”

“David versus Goliath”
At the headquarters of the ECHR, in Strasbourg, several dozen lawyers and jurists are expected to defend the cause of the States against the six young people who, for their part, did not fail to seek the support of NGOs and activists of the ecological cause almost everywhere in Europe.

“It’s a David versus Goliath case,” likes to compare Gearoid O Cuinn, director of the British NGO Global Legal Action Network (Glan), which supports and defends the six plaintiffs. “This is a matter without precedent in terms of its scale and its consequences.”

But before ruling on the merits, the Court will first examine the admissibility of the request, according to strict criteria which cause many cases to be rejected each year. And in this unprecedented procedure, particularly due to the number of States concerned, the question should be vigorously debated.

The ECHR usually requires that applicants have exhausted remedies before the national courts before turning to it. However, here, the six complainants directly contacted the institution: carrying out separate procedures in each of the 32 countries concerned would, according to them, represent an “excessive and disproportionate burden”, which they therefore exempted themselves from.

If the file is deemed admissible, then the decision, expected at best in 2024, will be scrutinized: the court’s jurisprudence on global warming is still virgin.

In their approach, the complainants also attracted the attention of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, who sent observations to the Court.

She believes that judges must “provide concrete protection to people who suffer the consequences of climate change”.

The first two climate cases targeting Switzerland and France were examined in March by the ECHR, which has not yet ruled.

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