On 1 September at 16:00 CEST, 10:00 EDT, the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE) hosted the fourth webinar in the series ‘Human rights strategies in climate change litigation’. The webinar will focus on developments in climate litigation in Europe. 

Source: Climateinthecourts

Europe has in some ways been at the forefront of climate change litigation, particularly with cases brought against national governments seeking swifter action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect citizens’ fundamental rights in the face of the climate emergency. European courts have ruled in favor of climate litigants challenging their governments’ climate policies, first with the groundbreaking verdict in the Dutch Urgenda case and most recently with the Supreme Court victory for Climate Case Ireland.

Lawyers working on European climate litigation, including those who worked on these two trailblazing cases, shared their insights during a virtual panel discussion held Wednesday, September 1. The discussion focused on human rights strategies in European climate cases, and was the fourth in a climate litigation webinar series hosted by the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment. Panelists included the Urgenda Foundation’s Dennis van Berkel, German lawyer Roda Verheyen, Andrew Jackson of Friends of the Irish Environment, and Louise Fournier with Greenpeace International.


The Urgenda case in the Netherlands won an initial landmark ruling in 2015, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The courts ordered the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent (below 1990 levels) by the end of 2020, marking the first time anywhere in the world that courts have ordered a state to increase its level of climate mitigation to protect citizens’ human rights. As van Berkel explained, the Dutch courts upheld the “duty of care” and due diligence principles enshrined in Dutch and international law, essentially concluding that nation states like the Netherlands have an obligation to do their part or fair share in reducing globe-warming emissions to the greatest extent possible. “I think this due diligence principle will play a role in future litigation,” van Berkel said.

The Urgenda case directly inspired an Irish environmental group called Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) to sue the Irish government over its climate policy in a case dubbed Climate Case Ireland. That case, initially dismissed by the High Court, won in a leapfrog appeal to the Irish Supreme Court with the court ruling in favor of the environmental plaintiffs on July 31, 2020. The Supreme Court decided that Ireland’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan lacked specificity and therefore did not comply with the 2015 statute it arose under. Although the ruling did not address FIE’s human rights arguments, it was still significant in demonstrating that governments’ inadequate climate policies can be challenged – and overturned – in court. 

“The overall major message from the case is that governments can and will be held accountable in court for their climate obligations,” FIE attorney Andrew Jackson said.

Panelist Roda Verheyen spoke about her work representing plaintiffs in several European climate cases, including one called the People’s Climate Case challenging the European Union’s 2030 climate target. That case has been stuck on the issue of admissibility (standing) and is currently pending on appeal. Verheyen has also worked on climate cases in Germany – one case is now closed and the other is just beginning. That new case features young people as plaintiffs bringing constitutional claims against the German government challenging the German Climate Change Act enacted in December 2019. Verheyen said this new climate law fails to provide a pathway for emissions reduction aligned with limiting global warming to 1.5°C – a threshold that climate scientists warn exceeding will lead to devastating and possibly irreversible “tipping points” and climate breakdown.  

“Given the urgency and fact there is so little time left, our argument is essentially to do as much as you can [to avoid this breakdown],” Verheyen explained.

Louise Fournier, legal counsel for Greenpeace International, wrapped up the discussion talking about climate cases (that Greenpeace is supporting) in NorwaySwitzerlandFrance, the Netherlands, and the Philippines. These cases all have human rights arguments, and as Fournier explained, they demonstrate that human rights law can be used to recognize new legal principles and to hold specific sectors and corporate actors accountable. The Philippines’ case for example, though not an official lawsuit (rather an investigation by the country’s Human Rights Commission), is expected to conclude that major fossil fuel producers could be deemed liable for human rights violations due to their sizeable contributions to the climate crisis. The final report on that investigation is expected in the coming months.

“We hope that the outcome of the Philippines’ inquiry will have implications for the Dutch case against Shell as well as for future rights-based cases against fossil fuel companies,” Fournier said. The case in the Netherlands targeting Shell (Milieudefensie et al. v. Shell) is slated for court hearings later this year.

Astrid Milena Bernal

By Astrid Milena Bernal

Astrid Milena Bernal Rubio is a Colombian environmental lawyer and a PhD-Law student at the University of Melbourne - Climate Futures Center. Formerly LL.M student at Pennsylvania State University (concentrations in International Law and Energy and Environmental Law). She is also a lawyer from the Universidad Católica de Colombia, a Magister in Environmental Law from the Complutense University of Madrid and a Specialist in human rights and critical legal studies from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) Latin American School of Public Policy- ELAP.

As part of the technical team of GFLAC (climate finance group for Latin America and the Caribbean), she supported the creation of the MRV system (monitoring, reporting and verification) for climate finance in Colombia. In addition, she has been a consultant for the WRI (World Resources Institute) and The Access Initiative (TAI), working as the National researcher for the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI). Also, she has worked as a consultant for AVINA Foundation, The Bogotá’s drainage and sewerage company (EAAB), Green Faith (NY based NGO), Brighter Green (NY based NGO) and worked as Campaign coordinator against unsustainable livestock production at the Global Forest Coalition. Astrid has worked as a lawyer and researcher on issues associated with public participation, access to information, forests, carbon markets, Just Energy transition and rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities in Colombia.

Astrid was a volunteer for the Network for Environmental Justice in Colombia and promoted the creation and growth of the climate justice division at the Environment and Society Association (AAS) of Colombia. Astrid was a senior research coordinator in a joint research project with UNICEF to contribute to the fulfilment of the SDGs (6), focusing its work on guaranteeing the rights of access to sanitation for rural, indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Colombia. She is also part of the founders of the Colombian NGO- CAMBIUM (Climate, Environment and Research-Action Uniting Worlds). This organization aims to, directly and indirectly, influence processes carried out by civil society and decision-makers related to climate change.

Astrid also supported the work of Pivot Point and the CLARA group (Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance), promoting the understanding and participation of CSOs to ensure higher ambition of NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) in Spanish speakers countries through the website

Astrid was a research assistant at Penn State University identifying how different kinds of transboundary river basin organizations have written and used dispute resolution mechanisms in both the bilateral agreements between the US, Mexico and Canada (NAFTA-USMCA) and the Autonomous Binational Authority of the Basin of Lake Titicaca (Bolivia, Peru).

Astrid was one of the members of the core team in the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE), and she is part of the global network of environmental lawyers (ELAW). In her free time, she collaborates as a volunteer for The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition- CAIR coalition.