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Extinction Rebellion protestors march on the Dail (parliament) on Budget day in Dublin, Oct. 8, 2019.

The Big Fix

Activists took the Irish govt to court over its national climate plan — and won

The court battle, known as Climate Case Ireland, is one of many cases around the world of climate activists bringing their own country’s governments to court for insufficient action on climate change. 

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Extinction Rebellion protestors march on the Dail (parliament) on Budget day in Dublin, Oct. 8, 2019.

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Lorraine O'Sullivan/Reuters 

It was like nothing Clodagh Daly ever experienced, and certainly not how she expected the three-year court battle to end.

Hunched over her laptop in her kitchen with two of her colleagues, she watched as one Supreme Court justice after another said, “I agree.”

Related: Global network of young people writes poems to cope with climate crisis

The result was a unanimous decision that said that the Irish government’s national climate plan broke the law by not being aggressive enough to meet the country’s own targets.

“For the highest national court of law to give [a] unanimous ruling in our favor is just so momentous,” said Daly, a member of Friends of the Irish Environment, the group who sued the government back in 2017.

The decision, which came down earlier this month, said that the country’s National Mitigation Plan fell well short of the specificity needed to ensure that the country’s climate goals could be met, which is to reach an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 compared to 1990 levels, according to a 2015 federal law. The court proposed that the mitigation plan be “quashed” and redone.

“The case is the first of its kind in Ireland whereby the highest national court of law would require the government to raise the ambition of its national climate policy to actually meet its legal obligations.” 

Clodagh Daly, Friends of the Irish Environment 

“The case is the first of its kind in Ireland whereby the highest national court of law would require the government to raise the ambition of its national climate policy to actually meet its legal obligations,” Daly said.

The legal battle, known as Climate Case Ireland, is one of many cases around the world of climate activists bringing their own country’s governments to court for insufficient action on climate change. Throughout the last decade, dozens of suits have entered the courts, and Ireland is one of the first countries to deliver a big win for activists.

Related: How China’s nature-based solutions help with extreme flooding

“I think, for me, the most powerful element of Climate Case Ireland is reshaping the question of responsibility for the climate crisis,” Daly said.  

Ireland has the third-highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the European Union, and Daly said for a long time, the government’s strategy has been to encourage lifestyle changes to lower emissions.

Like the Department of Energy’s 2006 “Power of One” campaign focusing on energy efficiency in the home, which cost the country 10 million euros, largely on advertising, and failed to deliver results.

But since that time, Daly said youth activism in Ireland, such as local chapters of Fridays for Future and School Strike for Climate, have put pressure on the government to do more.

“Activists all around the world have been demanding that climate justice be front and center of the conversation,” Daly said.

This month’s court decision in Ireland means the federal government needs to come up with an entirely new plan for how to drastically lower the country’s emissions.

Related: ‘The mother of all injustices is climate change,’ says former diplomat and climate change leader

Ireland’s Climate Minister Eamon Ryan congratulated Friends of the Irish Environment and applauded the ruling. In a statement, he said the new plan gives the country, “an opportunity unlike any other.”

“We must use this judgment to raise ambition, to empower action and to ensure that our shared future delivers a better quality of life for all.”

Ireland Climate Minister Eamon Ryan

“We must use this judgment to raise ambition, to empower action and to ensure that our shared future delivers a better quality of life for all,” he said.

The ruling is the second win for a group called the Climate Litigation Network, which helps activist groups sue their own governments. The network was formed while the case, Urgenda was underway — it was the first high-profile climate lawsuit to have a major win, which ended in the Netherlands this past December.

Similar to the Ireland case, the seven-year Urgenda lawsuit argued that the Dutch government has a legal duty to act more ambitiously to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling said that the government must cut emissions by at least 25% of the 1990-levels by the end of 2020.

Tessa Khan is an environmental lawyer who worked on the Urgenda case — she also co-founded the Climate Litigation Network. She says the Irish decision assuages some fears that the Netherlands win was a one-off, specific to Dutch federal law.

“I think the fact that this has also happened in Ireland really does vindicate this idea that we can use litigation to hold governments accountable for climate change,” she said.

And the Urgenda case shows that these lawsuits work. Since the ruling, the Netherlands has accelerated plans to phase out coal burning, Khan said. Her group estimates that their case has resulted in an investment of 3 billion euros in new climate initiatives.

Related: In Karachi, planting dense urban forests could save the city from extreme heat

“These cases have real impacts,” Khan said. “They're not just a kind of interesting intellectual exercise for lawyers to produce interesting decisions. It's about change that matters.”

Khan’s litigation network is helping groups in more than a dozen countries, including South Korea, Canada, Pakistan and New Zealand, among others.

In Norway, the local Greenpeace chapter is suing the federal government; it’s trying to prevent offshore oil drilling in the Norwegian Arctic, claiming it violates Norway’s constitution, which includes the right to a healthy environment.

Greenpeace Norway leader Frode Pleym said he’s celebrating the news from Ireland. 

“It shows that the legal system can hold the state accountable for climate change,” Pleym said. “But also, the Norwegian legal system is not operating in a vacuum. The Norwegian legal system is looking abroad.”

Ultimately, these lawsuits are fighting for the same thing, says Pleym, emissions cuts anywhere, help people everywhere.

“A win in the Netherlands or a win in the Philippines is equally important to us here in Norway, as the case in Norway would be to other countries,” he said.

In Ireland, Daly is still celebrating her group’s win and supporting other cases around the world that are following Climate Case’s lead. 

“It's kind of like we’re riding on the crest of what we hope is going to be a global wave of climate litigation,” she said. “We're really excited to see what other cases might follow.

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a direct quote about emissions cuts to Frode Pleym. We regret the error.

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