Citizens sue EU governments over failure to deliver on climate change pledges

By on 06/04/2023 | Updated on 06/04/2023
The European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Photo by Simon via Flickr under CC license (

Citizens of European Union member states have sued their respective national governments over failure to tackle climate change in a first for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Three cases brought before the highest chamber of the court in Strasbourg in March outlined the plaintiffs’ claim that inaction on the parts of state administrations had violated their fundamental rights. The hearings marked the first time the ECHR had been asked to judge whether ineffective climate change policies amount to an infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The first case began on 29 March and was brought by a group of more than 2,000 elderly Swiss women, known as the Club of Climate Seniors, who claim that the Swiss government’s failure to reach the country’s emissions targets constitutes a direct threat to their right to life. 

Their case includes the claim that the effects of recurrent heatwaves caused by global warming had harmed their health, with the plaintiffs describing shortness of breath, nausea and even loss of consciousness during heatwaves.

Speaking to the BBC, Elisabeth Stern, one of the campaigners, said: “Some people say, ‘why are you complaining, you’re going to die anyway’. But we don’t want to die just because our Swiss government has not been successful in coming up with a decent climate policy.”

Another member of the group, 85-year-old Marie-Eve Volkoff, said she had to stay indoors for 11 weeks last summer due to heatwaves – venturing out only for short outings – in what she described as a “climate lockdown”.

The case is ongoing.

The French state was sued in a case heard later that day. The plaintiff is Damien Carême, a member of the European Parliament for the Green party and former mayor of the French town of Grande-Synthe, who claims that his life and home had been endangered by government failure to reduce greenhouse gases.

According to Corinne Lepage, a former French ecology minister and one of Careme’s lawyers, “the stakes are extremely high” .

“If the European court recognises that climate failings violate the rights of individuals to life and a normal family life, then that becomes precedent in all of the council’s member states and potentially in the whole world,” she said.

Strasbourg has fast-tracked the hearing, meaning judges are set to decide within a year instead of the usual three.

Read more: How can governments turn climate change ambition into action?

The third case, due to be heard later this year, was brought by six Portuguese children and young adults, who together argued that all 27 EU member states, along with Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine, posed a disproportionate threat to young people through their collective inaction.

All three cases draw on the plaintiffs’ unique experience of and vulnerability to climate change, and are primarily based on commitments to reduce carbon emissions first made by governments at the historic Paris Accord in 2015. A legally binding international treaty on climate change, the Paris Agreement secured pledges by 196 countries to keep the planet’s temperature to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

Six other cases are pending with the European court and thousands have been filed from jurisdictions globally. According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, climate change-related suits taken out against private firms as well as governments have doubled since 2015.

If successful, the three cases brought forward in March could force governments to take more resolute action to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

A growing electoral issue

Global Government Forum has tracked the increasing importance citizens and voters place on government climate action.

A 2021 poll conducted by the Australian Conservation Fund, for instance, showed through the largest ever survey of Australians’ views on climate change that 67% of voters viewed climate change as either the most important or an important factor in determining who to vote for.

It also found that most voters in all 151 federal electoral seats believe the government should be doing more to tackle climate change.

A study carried out that same year by Canada’s non-profit research organisation the Angus Reid Institute found that one in five Canadians put climate change ahead of both access to healthcare and taxes when making voting decisions.

Green issues are considered to have been a factor in the national elections in both Australia and Canada last year.

Read more: Vote of confidence: how climate-conscious electorates are forcing governments to get serious about going green

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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