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Swiss inaction on climate change violated human rights, rules European Court

Switzerland is failing to meet its human rights obligations by not taking sufficient action to tackle climate change, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled in a landmark case

Women for Climate
Members of Senior Women for Climate Protection react after the court verdict in Strasbourg

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, handed down judgments in three landmark cases, which represented the first climate litigation before the court. Judges rejected the applicants’ arguments in the other two cases, which were brought against France and 33 European countries respectively.

In Tuesday’s Grand Chamber judgment on the Swiss case, the ECtHR held by 16-1 that Switzerland had violated Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life or home) and Article 6 § 1 (access to court) by failing to reduce emissions.

The case was brought by an association called KlimaSeniorinnen (Climate Senior Women) on behalf of more than 2,000 members, who it said were at risk of health problems because of heat waves linked to climate change.

Four individuals were also named as applicants, one of whom died while the proceedings were before the court, but judges ruled that they did not have standing as victims to bring the case, whereas the association did.

Because of the complexity of the case and the margin of appreciation allowed in this area, the ECtHR declined to make specific orders for actions Switzerland must take in response to the judgment, leaving this to the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers to oversee.

The court also awarded €80,000 to the KlimaSeniorinnen for legal costs and expenses.

Indeed, the Swiss association Verein KlimaSeniorinnen and its members, the former mayor of the French town of Grande-Synthe Damien Carême and a group of six young Portuguese aged between 12 and 24 had brought their cases before the ECtHR. The complaints of the KlimaSeniorinnen and Damien Carême were directed against their respective home countries, Switzerland and France.

In the case of the Portuguese youth group, all 27 EU member states as well as the UK, Russia, Turkey, Norway and Switzerland were in the dock. This makes the Portuguese complaint the “largest” climate complaint ever heard worldwide in terms of defendants. Originally, it was also directed against Ukraine. However, in the face of the Russian war of aggression, the young people withdrew their lawsuit against the country.

In all three cases, the plaintiffs invoked their human rights, which they considered to have been violated by the inadequate climate policy of the defendant states. Specifically, they referred to the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ECHR) and the right to respect for private and family life (Article 8 ECHR). The Portuguese group also invoked the prohibition of inhuman treatment (Article 3 ECHR) and the prohibition of discrimination in the application of rights and freedoms (Article 14 ECHR).

According to the prosecution, the states are not doing enough to fulfill their obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement and to limit global warming to below 2°C, or 1.5°C if possible.

In a reaction on the issue, Ottmar Edenhofer, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), said: “With its latest ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has expressed its opinion on the core issue of international climate policy – the question of responsibility. The fact that the court ruled in favour of the Swiss Climate Seniors Association and recognised inadequate climate policy as a violation of human rights is groundbreaking. This ruling should also remind other states of their international obligations: those who set climate targets are responsible for meeting them.

“However, it is also clear that Europe cannot meet the 1.5°C target on its own and that Switzerland does not bear sole responsibility here either. The Paris Climate Agreement sets global targets, but It does not define binding contributions from individual countries. Thus, the entire international community is responsible for combating climate change – and above all the main emitters. Binding mechanisms across national borders are therefore needed to enable cooperation. One successful example is the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which creates monetary incentives for non-European countries to cooperate. This can help to further expand carbon markets and link them internationally.”

On his part, Johan Rockström, also Director at PIK, submitted: “After more than three years of legal proceedings, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a state – in this case Switzerland – is neglecting to act properly on the human caused climate crisis thereby violating their citizens’ human rights. But these rulings are not just about one state: They mark the first time an international court has ruled on climate change, and will have important implications for all politicians and national leaders in particular.

“Heatwaves, droughts, floods and forest fires are already threatening human lives today. As climate change intensifies, these extreme weather events will increase. Future generations will therefore particularly suffer from climate impacts. Governments must take urgent action to reduce emissions and offset hard-to-abate CO2 emissions with negative emissions. The more we exceed the CO2 budget for 1.5°C, the more CO2 will have to be removed through targeted removals. Climate lawsuits can put pressure on governments to increase their climate policy efforts and thus advance diplomatic negotiations.”

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