As climate crisis worsens, courts increasingly standing for human rights

Dabaso Kantoma Sora planting drought resistant seedlings under adopt a tree initiative. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The Africa Climate Change Summit took place in Nairobi this week. It brought together African states under the African Union, global leaders, intergovernmental organisations, the UN, business leaders, and civil society to seek ways of addressing climate change and map out Africa's priorities and needs based on global plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2050.

Continent's leaders asking developed nations to honour their commitments to provide USD100 billion in annual climate finance agreed upon during the COP15 in Copenhagen nearly a decade and a half ago and the operationalisation of the loss and damage fund agreed in Egypt at the last Conference of Parties (COP27). The continent is reminding the world that fossil fuels must be phased out of the energy equation to save the planet.

As Africa holds 40 per cent of the minerals needed for the transition such as lithium and coltan, investing in green energy would benefit the continent economically. So far, these minerals have been extracted and taken to the West without developing local communities. The mobilisation and distribution of climate finance are essential for global climate action. As a result of continued investment in and proliferation of fossil fuels, including drilling wells, experts wonder if humanity has fully understood the emergency it faces. A sufficient amount of pressure hasn't yet been applied to nations dependent on oil, gas, and coal to shift their economies and invest in alternatives.

The Big Oil companies sent more delegates to COP26 in Glasgow than indigenous groups, experts, civil society, or countries already disappearing under rising sea levels. This shows their influence and largess. The International Energy Agency and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that government subsidies for fossil fuels increased from USD147 billion to USD190 billion from 2020 to 2021.

In developing the UN Framework on Climate Change, climate change was not considered a human rights issue. In recent years, climate-related lawsuits have increased worldwide following the adoption of the Paris Agreement, which included explicit references to human rights. These lawsuits hold governments and corporations accountable for their contributions to climate change and its adverse effects.

One of the first successful challenges to climate change policy based on human rights is the Urgenda Foundation vs The State of Netherlands case. An environmental group sued the Dutch government for insufficient climate change efforts. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the government was legally obligated to protect its citizens from climate change's effects by taking more ambitious climate action.

According to the court, the Netherlands must reduce emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990. After that, Milieudefensie vs Royal Dutch Shell convinced the courts that Shell must reduce its emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 to comply with the Paris Agreement goals. Shell has filed an appeal. In Neubauer vs Germany, youths successfully challenged the provisions aiming to reduce emissions by 45 per cent based on 1990 levels as violating their rights since it was insufficient to limit global temperatures as per the Paris Agreement. As a result of the court's order, parliament has developed more ambitious goals, achieving a new 65 per cent target.

Four weeks ago, in Held vs Montana, a US federal court found that young people have a constitutional right to a healthful environment and that fossil fuel development must consider potential climate damage. These cases demonstrate the power of citizens and CSOs to protect their rights and those of future generations through country constitutions, regional and international agreements.