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Why landmark climate case verdict from ECHR has big implications for Ireland

As the second biggest carbon emitter in the EU on a per capita basis and unlikely to meet its first legally binding five-year carbon budget, Ireland is likely to be in the dock for years to come for not doing enough

There is a global wave of litigation, as communities, especially young climate activists, attempt to secure their human rights and hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for a dangerously overheating world.

Of hundreds of cases dealt with, whether before a national or international court, the success rate is modest. But it is safe to say litigants across the planet will be emboldened by a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision delivered on Tuesday.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled the Swiss government violated its citizens’ human rights by not doing enough to stop climate change. It rejected similar cases brought by young Portuguese people who claimed their human rights were infringed by the climate policies of 32 countries including Ireland, and a French MEP.

The outcome is likely to have implications for other governments including Ireland’s because they are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights.

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A group of older Swiss women claimed they were particularly affected by global warming with increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves posing a life-threatening risk. Six Portuguese youths argued that climate-fuelled disasters such as wildfires threatened their right to life and discriminated against them based on their age.

“These cases drew on each other, and they should be understood that way,” according to Corina Heri, a researcher at the University of Zurich who was involved in the Portuguese action.

The ruling sets a precedent applying to all European countries, said Irish lawyer Gerry Liston of Global Legal Action Network (Glan) which led the Portuguese case. “It means all European countries must urgently revise their targets so that they are science-based and aligned to 1.5 degrees. This is a massive win for all generations.”

The ruling is a historic victory for climate justice, said the Centre for Environmental Justice run by Community Law & Mediation in Ireland. The court declared, for the first time ever, that the Swiss government’s inadequate action on emissions (and by extension the inaction of all parties to the court) is a violation of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to respect for private and family life.

The court president, Judge Síofra O’Leary, stressed it would be up to governments to decide how to approach climate obligations. “The court finds that there were some critical lacunae in the Swiss authorities’ process of putting in place the relevant domestic regulatory framework. This included a failure to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas emissions limitations,” she said. “The respondent state had previously failed to meet its past greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by failing to act in good time and in an appropriate and consistent manner.”

That finding is likely to send a chill down the back of the Irish Government, as Ireland is the second biggest carbon emitter in the EU on a per capita basis, and is unlikely to meet its first legally binding five-year carbon budget. Ireland stood alone when, in its defence, it stated the risk the applicants face is no greater than risks inherent to life in a modern city, when in reality they face extreme weather and temperatures in excess of 40 degrees for prolonged periods if the planet remains on its current trajectory.

Glan argued the Government had also made the disingenuous claim that its 2030 target to reduce emissions by 51 per cent below the 2018 level was the second most ambitious in the world – though Ireland’s emissions continued to rise throughout the past decade while other countries were reducing theirs.

The Government is facing a challenge to its 2023 Climate Action Plan, brought by Friends of the Irish Environment, who argue it does not set out with sufficient specificity how emissions will be cut in line with the carbon budget. That action and the ECHR verdict, which is likely to prompt other cases because of ongoing failure to adequately address climate change, means Ireland is likely to be in the dock for years to come for not doing enough – just like the Swiss government.

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