Updated Apr 10, 2024

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ECHR makes first climate ruling

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has made its first ever ruling regarding a climate change case brought to it by a group of more than 2,000 older Swiss women who claimed Switzerland had not done enough to combat climate change, violating their human rights.

The group, consisting of women mostly in their 70s, claimed that older women's rights are impacted because extreme heat resulting from climate change will affect them most, and the Swiss government wasn't doing enough to protect them. One of their arguments was that they could not leave their homes during heatwaves, and their health suffered in such periods too.

When considering the case, the ECHR said that Switzerland had failed to comply with duties to stop climate change and meet emission reduction targets. In doing so, the Government had violated their rights, indicating for the first time in the Court that climate change is a human rights issue. This means the verdict could open up all 46 members of the Council of Europe to similar cases; something that has not been well received by some Tory MPs who are using this as a further reason to leave the ECHR.

However, two other climate change cases were brought before the ECHR at the same time, both of which were unsuccessful. One case was brought by six young people from Portugal who argued that increasingly real effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and wildfires, meant some of their basic rights were impacted. For instance they could not go outside to play or go to school. They also claimed to be suffering from climate anxiety. The ECHR said that their case was inadmissible as they had not explored legal avenues in Portugal first.

The other case that was dismissed was brought by French MEP Damien Carême, who argued that France's failure to do enough to stop climate change violated rights to life and privacy and family life. When Carême filed the case, he was mayor of Grand-synthe which is a coastal town vulnerable to flooding. As Carême no longer lives there, the ECHR could not admit the case as he could not prove he was a direct victim of human rights violations.

Despite this, it is felt that the successful Swiss case is still an important win in the fight against climate change and may, at the very least, force the members of the Council of Europe to take more action before they face similar cases.

Estelle Dehon KC, a barrister at Cornerstone Barristers in the UK, said that the case "comprehensively dismisses the argument that courts cannot rule on climate legal obligations because climate change is a global phenomenon or because action by one state is just a 'drop in the ocean'."

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