Hit the targets. Climate change litigation in Belgium and Germany.

On 17 June 2021, the Brussels French-Speaking Court of First Instance (the “Court”) released a  ruling that the four Belgian governments were in breach of Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code and Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) by failing to take all necessary measures to prevent the impacts of climate change on the Belgian population. However, as opposed to Dutch courts in Urgenda, the Court refused to order an injunction to meet stricter targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions due to the principle of separation of powers. The case was brought on behalf of 58,000 Belgian citizens and by an NGO,Climate Change. The Court was asked to recognise the failure of the governments to decrease by 2020 the global volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions originating on Belgian territory by 40% (or at least 25%) compared to the 1990 level. They also sought an injunction to compel have the Belgian governments to make further reduce greenhouse gas emissions originating on the Belgian territory: by 48% (at least 42%) compared to 1990 by 2025; a reduction by 65% (at least 55%) compared to 1990 by 2030 and zero net emissions reached in 2050.

The Court acknowledged the standing of the 58,000 Belgian Citizens in holding governments liable under Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code due to the real threat of dangerous climate change, which poses a serious risk to current and future generations living in Belgium and elsewhere that their daily lives will be profoundly affected. The NGO also had  standing due to case the case law of the Belgian Supreme Court according to which an environmental protection association has the personal and direct interest required by Article 17 of the Belgian Judicial Code to bring a claim for compensation on the basis of Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code, if it believes that damage has been caused to the environment whose defence it has set itself as its statutory object.

The Court found that the federal government and the governments of the three Belgian regions failed to comply with their duty to exercise due caution and diligence in pursuing their climate policy. The Court noted that in 2019 the overall volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions from the Belgian territory had not decreased by 20% compared to the 1990 level. Therefore, Belgium does not comply with the objective set by the 2012 Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. Nor had it complied with the EU 15% reduction target for 2020 as targets in EC Decision 406/2009  because Belgium, as of October 2020, had only achieved a reduction of 11% compared to 2005. Looking to the future, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 35% compared to 2005 levels imposed by the EU Regulation 2018/842 on binding annual greenhouse gas emission reductions by Member States from 2021 to 2030 would not be met. Further experts were of the view that the federal government’s target of reducing the emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels would also not be met.

As regards the ECHR Articles 2 and 8 imposed on public authorities a positive obligation to take necessary measures to repair and prevent harmful consequences of global warning which threatens their life and private and family life – which, at this time, the four governments do not. However, the Court could not infer from Articles 6 and 24 of the UNCRC any positive obligation on the part of the signatory states, as the text leaves the authorities full latitude to meet the objectives they set out.

So far so good for the applicants, but the Court did not grant the requested injunction. Belgium was not required under European or international law to meet the targets referred to by the Applicants, and the only binding target is the one established by the EU Regulation 2018/842 which imposes a reduction of 35% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Second, the jurisdiction of the Court was limited to the finding of a deficiency on the part of the public authorities, but did not extend to setting itself  Belgium’s targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as this would violate the principle of separation of powers. This is in contrast to the position of the Dutch Supreme Court in Urgenda.

The Belgian decision follows hot on the heels of a decision on April 30 2021 by Germany’s Constitutional Court  that that Germany’s Climate Action Law was partly unconstitutional in that it postponed the decision for emissions reduction targets post-2030 to a later date.The German legislator was ordered to regulate the continuation of the reduction targets for the post-2031 period by 31 December 2022 at the latest.

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