On 13 March 2020, nineteen teenagers from across South Korea initiated proceedings against their government (the National Assembly of Korea and the President of Korea), arguing that insufficient emissions reductions efforts were violating their constitutional rights. Their constitutional complaint is currently pending before the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea.
The applicants in this case are part of the Korean Youth Climate Action Group, which has led the Korean ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement. They argued that, by not taking action to prevent the threats posed by climate change, the government had violated the right of younger generations to life and the pursuit of happiness (Article 10 of the Constitution), which they argue also enshrines the right to resist against human extinction, along with the right to live in a healthy and pleasant environment (Article 35(1) of the Constitution). They also contested inter-generational inequalities under the constitutional prohibition of discrimination (Article 11 of the Constitution) and invoked the duty of the State to prevent environmental disasters (Article 34(e) of the Constitution). In doing so, the applicants invoked the fatal risk posed by climate change and the irrevocable damage to be suffered by younger generations. As a major emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, they argued, Korea has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change by taking stronger emissions reductions action.
No action has been taken in this case to date. However, on 30 December 2022, the Korean National Human Rights Commission issued an official statement to the President of Korea regarding climate change and human rights. Citing IPCC reports, UN findings, other instances of climate litigation (such as Urgenda and Neubauer) and the existence of different vulnerabilities, it found that “[a]s the climate crisis has far-reaching impacts on multiple human rights, including the rights to life, food, health and housing, the government should regard protecting and promoting the rights of everyone in the midst of climate crisis as its fundamental obligation and reform related laws and systems to address the climate crisis from a human rights perspective.”
Status of the case:
On 12 June 2023, it was announced that the National Human Rights Commission of Korea had decided to submit an opinion to South Korea’s Constitutional Court to oppose the country’s Carbon Neutrality Act (2021), which it considered to be unconstitutional and in violation of the fundamental rights of future generations because it sets out a greenhouse gas emissions reductions target that was too low. The Act sets out a 40% emissions reductions target by 2030 as compared to 2018 levels. This, the Commission found, did not respect the constitutional principle of equality, because it passed the burden of greenhouse gas emissions on to future generations.
More information on the case:
For a recent press report on the case, see here.
On the ational Human Rights Commission of Korea’s intervention, see this article in the Korea Herald.
The submissions in the case, including an unofficial English translation of the complaint prepared by the applicants’ counsel, are available via ClimateCaseChart.
Constitutional Court of Korea, Do-Hyun KIM and 18 others v. South Korea, pending case filed on 13 March 2020.
23 June 2023