On 17 June 2021, a Brussels court of first instance issued its judgment in the Urgenda-inspired Belgian “Klimaatzaak” (Dutch for “climate case”).
The applicants in this case alleged, among other things, that the four Belgian governments (i.e. the three regional governments and the federal state) had violated human rights law, and were obligated to reduce Belgium’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.
The case was delayed for almost three years because of proceedings contesting the language of the case, which was adjudicated in French.
On 17 June 2021, a court of first instance found that Belgian climate policy was negligent and violated the duty of care under human rights law. At stake were, among other things, violations of Articles 2 and 8 ECHR, in claims inspired by the Dutch Urgenda case. However, the court of first instance also held that, in light of the principle of separation of powers, it could not set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the Belgian governments.
Key points of the first-instance judgment:
The Brussels court of first instance not only declared the complaint of the applicant association, VZW Klimaatzaak, admissible, but also that of the 58,000 co-plaintiffs. Belgian law does not allow for an actio popularis, but the first-instance court recognized that all of the applicants faced a risk of material, physical or moral damage. In doing so, it referred to the risks to human and animal health and to the territorial integrity of the Belgian state, and especially of the Flemish region, which was particularly at risk of harms caused by sea level rises. The best available science, as reflected in existing diplomatic consensus, did not leave room for doubt about the existence of a real risk from dangerous climate change. This meant a serious risk that current and future generations would see their daily lives profoundly impacted (“profondément perturbées”). The fact that other Belgian citizens could bring a similar claim did not change this.
The judgment also states that the federal state and the three regions are jointly and individually responsible for the risk of harm at stake, despite the complex structure of the Belgian state.
Lastly, the judgment states that the four governments’ inadequate climate policy violates articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which enshrine the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life, respectively).
However, the court did not order the injunction claimed by the applicants for concrete reduction targets. The applicants had requested an injunction to the effect that the Belgian state should reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2025 and by 55% by 2030.
The applicants have indicated that they will appeal the judgment and take a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, making this the potential fifth climate application to the ECtHR. The applicants have indicated that the reason for the latter step is that delays in the domestic judicial system mean that the case might only be concluded in 9.5 years. Citing the urgency of emissions reductions, they have indicated that they will claim that there is no effective remedy available on the domestic level.
Francophone first instance court of Brussels, 4th chamber, Klimaatzaak ASBL v. Belgium, no. 2015/4585/A, Judgment of 17 June 2021, available at https://prismic-io.s3.amazonaws.com/affaireclimat/18f9910f-cd55-4c3b-bc9b-9e0e393681a8_167-4-2021.pdf
For background information on the case, see here.
For a summary (in Dutch) by Klimaatzaak, see here.
For the full judgment (in French), see here.
For more on this case, see the blog post by Matthias Petel and Antoine De Spiegeleir in the Sabin Center’s Climate Law Blog, available here.