Tessa Khan: ‘Litigation is a powerful tool in the environmental crisis’

When a court in the Netherlands ruled its government’s actions unlawful, it inspired others to hold big polluters to account

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At key moments in history, courts around the world have helped to accelerate social change – they have vindicated the demands of people fighting to end slavery, racial segregation and gender inequality. It should therefore come as no surprise that they are being called on to help resolve the biggest social and environmental crisis of our time: the climate emergency.

The case against the government of the Netherlands powerfully illustrates what climate litigation can achieve. In 2015, the Hague district court issued a groundbreaking decision in response to a lawsuit filed by the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens, arguing that the government was failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough. The court agreed that the government’s actions were unlawful and ordered it to slash the Netherlands’ emissions by 2020. That decision was upheld by a court of appeal and ultimately by the supreme court of the Netherlands in 2019.

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