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Climate litigation win for elderly Swiss women sets global precedent

The climate litigation victory is significant for a country that has been warming at more than twice the global rate in recent years.

Woman stands in front of a glacier in the Swiss Alps (Photo: Adobe Stock/lightpoet)

Climate litigation has recorded one if its biggest victories so far last week, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of a group of elderly Swiss women who had claimed the Swiss authorities’ inaction over climate change had directly impacted their health and wellbeing.

The landmark case was brought by the Senior Women for Climate Protection — Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz — an association that campaigns for the effective implementation of climate protection on behalf of its members, more than 2,000 older women, one-third of whom are over 75, after they were defeated at the Swiss Federal Court.

The case was also brought individually by four women, all members of the association and aged over 80, who complain of health problems that worsen during heatwaves, with a significant impact on their living conditions and well-being.

The EU Court of Human Rights ruled, by a majority of sixteen votes to one, that Switzerland had “failed to comply with its duties under the Convention concerning climate change” and that it had violated the right to respect for private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.

It also said that there had been “critical gaps in the process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework, including a failure by the Swiss authorities to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limitations.”

Switzerland had also failed to meet its past GHG emission reduction targets.

At the same time, the Court dismissed two other similar cases, brought by six Portuguese young people and a former French mayor, on grounds that the case had to be decided in Portugal first, and that the French national no longer lived in France and therefore his human rights were not directly affected by French authorities’ decisions, respectively.

Switzerland has been warming at more than twice the global rate in recent years.

The country ratified the Paris agreement on Climate Change, which targets keeping global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.

However, in a June 2021 referendum, voters rejected an amendment to the Federal Act on the Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (CO2 Act) which had targeted GHG emission reductions of at least 50% by 2050, in line with Paris Agreement commitments.

The victory by the elderly Swiss women is widely acknowledged as a landmark one for climate activism.

“What’s significant about this judgment is that it’s binding on each of the 40-plus states that are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights,” Sam Hunter Jones, senior lawyer at NGO ClientEarth, told Gas Outlook.

“For a judge in these signatory countries considering a climate case, it will now be clear that states have a duty to ensure their climate action is sufficient to protect human rights.”

 “As this ruling has come from one of Europe’s highest courts, it will also make politicians sit up and take notice when it comes to passing and implementing climate laws given that the Court has clarified that real and effective climate action is needed to protect people’s human rights,” he said.

 “The significance of the victory in the Klimaseniorinnen case is monumental,” Joana Setzer, associate professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said.

The landmark ruling (…) not only sets a precedent in environmental and climate law but also signals a momentous shift in the global legal landscape concerning climate change.”

“This decision underscores the profound importance of protecting individuals’ rights against the severe impacts of climate change, emphasising the responsibility of states under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to safeguard private and family life against environmental harm,” she said.

 “While the judgment directly influences European States bound by the Convention, its ramifications extend globally,” she continued.

“It serves as a crucial reference point for courts worldwide in interpreting the human rights obligations of states regarding climate action.”

 “This ruling arrives at a critical juncture, poised to inform the advisory opinions of three international courts on the legal obligations of states in the context of climate change,” she added.

The decision also “reaffirms the judiciary’s vital role in climate governance.” 

 “The victory in the Klimaseniorinnen case represents a milestone in climate litigation,” Catherine Higham, policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said.

“Had the Court not recognised the Convention’s mandate for states to actively protect citizens from the repercussions of climate change, it could have posed a substantial barrier to future litigation, representing a backwards step in terms of the evolution of climate law.”

 “Instead, we now have a clear affirmation that states bear a positive obligation to shield their citizens from climate change and to safeguard their welfare, including through establishing a binding regulatory framework at the national level.”

“This ruling is pivotal for our comprehension of the effectiveness and execution of close to 30 climate change framework laws throughout Europe.”

Meanwhile, “in the UK, attempts to ground human rights cases in the Convention have, until now, not succeeded,” she noted.

“Yet, in last year’s landmark net zero case, the High Court suggested that UK courts would ‘keep pace’ with Strasbourg jurisprudence as it continues to evolve.”

“This judgment is expected to influence climate litigation in the UK significantly, especially in cases concerning adherence to the obligations under the Climate Change Act,” she said.

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