Climate in court: UN tracks doubling of legal cases filed within five years

Image: Friends of the Earth. Pictured: A challenge brought against the UK Government's Net-Zero Strategy

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has this week published new global figures on climate-related litigation, revealing the increasing pressure that governments and big businesses are being put under by citizens to strengthen future plans and right previous wrongs.

Collated in partnership with Colombia University’s Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, the figures reveal a total of 2,180 climate-related cases filed in 2022. This is more than double the number of cases filed in 2017, the first year in which the UNEP researched the issue. Then, 844 cases were filed.

Over the five-year period, the US has remained the nation with the greatest number of cases filed. The figures are accompanied by an analysis covering how climate litigation has become an “increasingly well-defined” field of law globally, particularly in the US and Europe.

Change afoot

The UNEP has, however, tracked a steep uptick in cases being filed in low-income nations in the Global South over the past five years. Almost one-fifth of the cases filed in 2022 were in developing countries, showing a growing trend towards the most-affected communities finding legal outlets to challenge big polluters.

Also of note is the fact that more than one in ten cases filed last year were brought by – or on behalf of – those aged 25 and under. The youngest claimants were girls between seven and nine in Pakistan and India respectively.

UNEP is expecting a rise in the number of cases to continue. It also expects to see a greater proportion of the filings being made either by or on behalf of the most marginalised groups.

Additionally noted is a forecasted change in the reasons why cases are filed. At present, many cases ride on historic and ongoing harms to public health and human rights. In the decades to come, more cases are likely to be about climate-related migration and the social impact of polluting industries on natural resources.

Sabin Center’s faculty director Michael Gerrard said: “There is a distressingly growing gap between the level of greenhouse gas reductions the world needs to achieve in order to meet its temperature targets and the actions that governments are actually taking to lower emissions. This inevitably will lead more people to resort to the courts.”

Challenge case studies

National Governments to have been taken to the courts on climate grounds last year include Australia, which was found to be violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders for inaction on decarbonising energy and industry in line with the Paris Agreement.

In Europe, courts sided against the German and French Governments on the grounds of public health and ecological damage respectively.

Additionally, the UK’s original net-zero strategy was deemed unlawful by the High Court in July 2022. A judge ordered an update by this March 2023, which did come, but will once again face a legal challenge.

The crux of the claims in this case are that the strategies to not lay out clear, time-bound numerical targets to decarbonise each industry. Moreover, they do not detail the level of funding and practical support necessary.

Corporations, as well as Governments, are increasingly facing climate litigation – especially energy companies and financial firms.

Shell, for example, was ordered by a Dutch court to update its emissions goals through to 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement back in 2021. In France, similarly, TotalEnergies was ordered to improve its climate risk measurement and disclosure.

The report touches on how, going forward, agri-food businesses and others with significant impacts on nature may well be the target of more court cases. Claimants could look at public health and ‘ecocide’ as well as climate targets.

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