The South African government has lost the country’s first climate change lawsuit after the hight court ruled against its plans for a coal-fired power station, the latest in a rising tide of international climate litigation.
Environmental NGO EarthLife Africa challenged the government’s approval of the proposed Thabametsi coal-fired power station on the grounds that it should have been preceded by an evaluation of its climate change impacts. The North Gauteng high court agreed and ordered the government to reconsider its approval, taking into account a full climate change impact assessment. A draft assessment shows that the project slated for the drought-prone Limpopo province will produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, and that the climate impacts threaten the future viability of the plant.
The case comes shortly after a groundbreaking climate case decided last month in Austria. A federal court blocked the expansion of Vienna’s international airport because the increase in carbon emissions that a new runway would generate is inconsistent with Austria’s commitments to tackle climate change.
The Austrian decision not only echoes controversies around airport expansions in the UK and France; it’s also the latest example of courts around the world stepping in to hold governments to account for escalating global temperatures.
Since a landmark Dutch climate change case, filed by my colleagues, resulted in an order that the government significantly reduce its carbon emissions, lawsuits challenging inaction on climate change have been filed in courtrooms in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region. Some lawsuits target the inadequacy of policies intended to reduce carbon emissions (as in the US, New Zealand, Belgium and Switzerland) while others challenge individual projects that have potentially catastrophic consequences for the climate (as in Norway, where the government has permitted new drilling for oil in the Arctic).
In Pakistan, where rising temperatures are already threatening lives and livelihoods, a court found in favor of a farmer who argued that his rights to life and dignity were under threat because of the government’s inadequate climate change policy.
Climate change litigation is an invaluable strategy at a time when governments have failed to live up to their repeated promises, affirmed most recently in the Paris agreement, to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. Current pledges to reduce emissions are projected to lead to warming of 3.2C above pre-industrial levels—way above the agreed target of “well below 2C” and likely to lead to radical changes in the environment.
Aside from highlighting the obligations of governments to protect their citizens from foreseeable harm, these cases have the considerable advantage of putting the facts of climate change on the public record. These facts, endorsed by governments through the adoption of scientific reports at the UN, include that climate change is real; that it is caused by human activity; that it will dramatically affect every region in the world; and that it is more cost-effective to act now than later. While it might be expedient for politicians to obfuscate these facts, it is another matter altogether to produce evidence to substantiate their position in court.
The political and social ripple effects of climate change cases are also enormous. While the Dutch government is appealing against the court’s ruling in the Netherlands, the case has already had a huge impact on national policy making and public debate.
Emboldened by the ruling, opposition MPs have drafted a new, more ambitious climate change act and a majority of parliamentarians have voted to phase out coal-fired power as quickly as possible. It has also catalyzed an unprecedented level of social mobilization around climate change as an issue.
These cases are powerful vehicles for the progressive action on climate that is urgently needed. Far from being an undue interference with policy-making processes, courts are reaching decisions in accordance with existing law and science. For as long as governments fail to take the steps necessary to avert dangerous change, courts can be expected to act as vital checks on political inaction.
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