In 2020, three environmental NGOs (Greenpeace, Ecologistas en Acción and Oxfam Intermón) challenged the level of ambition of the Spanish government’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets in what has been described as the first-ever Spanish climate case. At the material time, the Spanish ambition was to reduce emissions by 23% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels); the three NGOs argued that this target should have been more ambitious, at 55%. In the absence of any response to the challenge by the Government, in September 2020, the three NGOs filed an administrative appeal to the Spanish Supreme Court. In 2023, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, with the plaintiffs announcing their intention to seize the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
These proceedings challenged delays in the adoption of the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (‘Plan Nacional Integrado de Energía y Clima’ or PNIEC), as required under European Union law (by 31 December 2019, see EU Regulation 2018/1999), as well as its low level of amibition. The Spanish government missed this deadline, only transmitting its PNIEC to the European Commission on 31 March 2020. In their pleadings, the applicants argued that the Spanish state must take more ambitious measures in order to guarantee respect for human and environmental rights for present and future generations.
On 24 July 2023, the case was decided by the Spanish Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal in full. The Court noted the formal nature of the complaints about delays in the adoption of the plan, and emphasized the short time frame for the adoption of the PNIEC imposed by EU law, as well as the complexity of decision-making within multi-level governance frameworks, which meant that the plan could not be considered void as a whole.
As concerns the level of amibition of the plan, the Supreme Court noted the need to decide this case under Spanish law, and not the case-law from other jurisdictions that had been cited by the applicants; it also noted the need to respect the concrete legal obligations that Spain had assumed under the Paris Agreement, as well as the need to balance climate action with the interests of a sustainable economy.
The Court held that the State had a wide margin of discretion in this context, and that the case was asking it to exceed its role by not only declareing an acceptable emissions target, but accordingly by imposing far-reaching changes to Spain’s economic policy. It noted that while the targets under the Paris Agreement were minimum targets (“at least”), as were those under EU law, the Spanish legislator had chosen to adhere to these minima, and not to exceed them.
On the fundamental rights claim, the Court referred to EU law on locus standi, especially the Armando Carvalho case. It emphasized the need to prevent voiding the criterion of direct and individual concern. Accordingly, it found that the alleged infringement of human rights by the PNIEC was not sufficient in itself to render these claims admissible. The decision to adhere to the minima set out under EU law could not be considered arbitrary, but instead constituted a legitimate exercise of the Spanish government’s constitutional powers.
After the ruling was issued, Lorena Ruiz-Huerta, counsel for the plaintiff organizations, announced their intention to take this case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in order to “force the State to protect the human rights that are seriously threatened by climate change”.
Spanish Supreme Court, Greenpeace Spain et al. v. Spain, no. 1079/2023, 24 July 2023, ECLI:ES:TS:2023:3556.
For the Supreme Court’s ruling (in Spanish), see here.
The applicants’ pleadings (in Spanish) are available via ClimateCaseChart.com.
4 August 2023