Sustainability | ~ 4 min read

Climate action: a human right

Are countries violating their citizens’ human rights if their climate policies and actions are insufficient in reducing emissions to target net zero by 2050? A recent ruling against Switzerland says it is.

Amid an April heatwave in Switzerland, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the country’s climate policy violated human rights by not sufficiently addressing climate change. The case was brought to the Court by a group of Swiss citizens, known as “Senior Women for Climate Protection”, who cited the country’s hotter temperatures as the cause of their health issues.

The women argued they were unable to leave their homes during heatwaves – in violation of the right to respect for private and family life.

The Court has a remit to ensure the 46 countries of the Council of Europe1 uphold the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Its judgement on Swiss climate policy is significant in directly linking human rights and the consequences of climate change.

The court case referenced Article 8 of the ECHR which outlines the “right for individuals to effective protection by the State authorities from serious adverse effects of climate change on their life, health, wellbeing and quality of life.” It found “critical gaps” in Switzerland’s policies to tackle climate change.

The ruling means that European countries must adopt regulations and measures to mitigate the future impacts of climate change. There is some freedom to define these regulations and measures, but each nation is expected to support substantial emissions reduction and net-zero ambitions, including imported emissions, in its carbon footprint.

Impact of inaction

Switzerland criticised the decision, reaffirming the pertinence of its climate policies, and while the Court has no powers to impose sanctions, courts from Member states will probably take this ruling into account. As such, the verdict could prompt a renewed focus from European states to better align policies and regulations with net-zero ambitions, and this may have implications for corporates and other stakeholders. It may also heighten societal or political pressures on failing or deficient climate policies, especially in locations where there is evidence of rising weather-related risks.

Beyond Europe, the timing of this judgement coincides with the expected update of many sovereigns’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) aligning to 1.5°C Paris Agreement targets. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see the outcomes of similar cases pending in other international human rights courts, especially in the Americas region.

Our view is that understanding the interconnectivity between climate action and equity and inclusivity is essential. This is why our approach to sustainability focuses not only on limiting rising temperatures, but also on living equitably in a higher temperature world.

1 The Council of Europe is the continent’s leading human rights organisation promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law across Europe since its inception in 1949.

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