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On April 9, 2024, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (the “Court) handed down its unappealable judgment in a landmark climate case. Although directed at the Swiss government, the judgment extends to all Council of Europe member states and obligates them to revise their climate policies.

The case, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, was brought by four Swiss nationals and a Swiss non-government organization (“NGO”), who argued that Swiss citizens’ human rights had been violated by their government’s failure to cut emissions. The Court dismissed the four individuals’ complaints, citing a lack of standing, but upheld the NGO’s complaint. The Court also dismissed two other cases completely for lack of standing, Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 32 Others and Câreme v. France, both of which raised similar arguments.  

Two of the arguments raised by the NGO were based on violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”), specifically, that the Swiss government breached Article 2 (which guarantees the right to life) and Article 8 (which guarantees the right to respect for private and family life) by failing to curb emissions. The Swiss government argued that its inaction did not rise to the level of creating an imminent risk to life (as required under Article 2 of the Convention) and the Court agreed. However, the Court discussed the Article 8 arguments in detail and agreed there were violations thereof by the Swiss government.

Ultimately, the Court found that the Swiss government’s climate policies were not in compliance with its duties under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set a goal to limit global warming to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels by reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. The decision in this case makes this “goal” a legal duty. However, the Court did not prescribe specific actions governments must take to comply with the ruling. Rather, it set minimum emissions reduction targets and required transparency in compliance activities, but the Court left it up to governments to take the actions they see fit.

This decision sets the stage for future cases involving allegedly ineffective national climate policies. While plaintiffs will have to be mindful of standing, a framework has been created for courts to find a causal connection between government inaction and climate change. Further, European governments must take immediate action to reduce emissions, which could mean the implementation of more legislation relating to GHG reductions. This implementation could have a significant impact on the private sector, including manufacturing, refining, and related industries, as well as renewable energy development.

While this ruling is specific to European countries, U.S. companies should be mindful of its domestic implications (and the potential impact on U.S. companies with European operations). For U.S. businesses with European partners, an evaluation of potential legislative action should be taken promptly. And even for U.S. entities without European affiliates or operations, a massive shift in climate policies in Europe could have ripple effects throughout the world, including for traditional and renewable energy alike.