What is climate justice?
The first definition of climate justice was elaborated by the US NGO CorpWatch, in 1999. It states that:
“Climate justice means, first of all, removing the causes of global warming and allowing the Earth to continue to nourish our lives and those of all living beings. This entails radically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Climate justice means opposing destruction wreaked by the greenhouse gases at every step of the production and distribution process — from a moratorium on new oil exploration, to stopping the poisoning of communities by refinery emissions – from drastic domestic reductions in auto emissions, to the promotion of efficient and effective public transportation” (Bruno et al. 1999).
The long term objective of climate justice is thus the removal of the sources of climate changes, that is greenhouse gases emissions, at all levels: individuals, companies, governments.
Why we need climate justice
The concept of climate justice is directly linked to inequalities: the countries predicted to be the most negatively impacted by climate change are contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions (moral hazard). A 2011 study found evidence to validate this hypothesis, indicating as highly vulnerable the regions of central South America, Middle East and both eastern and southern Africa. In these areas, where current demographic growth is rapid, climate change is expected in the future to worsen the living conditions, pushing people to emigrate. These areas include the poorest countries in the world. Abnormal temperature patterns and extreme weather events are already heavily damaging infrastructures, households, crops, and so on. They are posing a serious threat in terms of food security and access to clean water.
To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, rapid and significant emission reductions in the wealthiest countries are imperative. It is also crucial to provide significant financial and technical assistance to help poorer countries and regions to adapt and develop low-carbon economies. Vulnerability to climate change can be reduced only by eliminating inequalities between and within countries.
Legal demands for climate justice
To support and complete their action towards climate justice, organizations and communities are developing legal demands.
Asghar Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan – 2015, Lahore High Court
Ashgar Leghari, a Pakistani farmer, filed a public interest litigation against the national government for its failure to implement the National Climate Change Policy 2012 (NCCP) and the Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy 2014-2030. He submitted that the inaction of the institutions was compromising his fundamental rights, guaranteed by the Constitution and international environmental principles such as the doctrine of public trust, sustainable development, the precautionary principle and intergenerational equity. In Pakistan, the state is trusted for protecting and not possessing some of the natural resources. It is also trusted to deal with unexpected law suits.
The Lahore High Court recognized that:
- Climate change is real and that is a serious threat to water, food and energy security of Pakistan, thus offending the fundamental right to life under article 9 of the Constitution;
- There is a lack of actual effort by the institutions to implement the NCCP and the Framework;
- There is a special worry for the protection of the fundamental rights of the citizens belonging to the vulnerable and weak segments of the society, unable to access the Court;
- There is a need to move on from environmental justice, which is already central in Pakistani constitutional rights but is mostly localized and limited to Pakistani ecosystems and biodiversity, to climate change justice, more urgent and overpowering.
As a remedy, the Court directed several ministries, departments and authorities to nominate each a climate change focal person for the implementation of the NCCP and Framework, and to present a list of adaptation action points to be achieved by the end of 2015. The Court also established a Climate Change Commission to speed up the implementation activities.
Fondation Urgenda v. Netherlands -2015, The Hague Tribunal
Urgenda, a foundation established in 2008 aiming at a fast transition towards a sustainable society with a circular economy, brought a claim to the Hague Tribunal against the State of the Netherlands, alleging that it has to take more action to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions. The Court:
- found that Dutch greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to climate change in a disproportionate way, since the Netherlands’ per capita emissions are one of the highest in the world;
- also found that if global emissions do not decrease substantially, there is a great and concrete possibility of damages for current and future generations of Dutch nationals, who are indeed already affected by climate change;
- considered the fact that, in view of a fair distribution of mitigation actions, the Netherlands, like the other western countries, has taken the lead in taking mitigation measures and has therefore committed to a more than proportionate contribution to reduction;
- concluded that the State has a duty of care to take mitigation measures, even if Dutch emissions are only a small contribution to global emissions. The conclusion was based especially on the principle of protection of the climate system for the benefit of current and future generations, based on fairness; the precautionary principle and the sustainability principle.
Based on these considerations, the Court ordered the Dutch State to reduce annual emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 compared to 1990.
What role can justice play?
There is a huge debate around possible legal tools for climate justice. At the root of the problem, there is the lack of an international binding treaty to oblige countries to reduce emissions: the Paris Agreement does not have an enforcement mechanism, which instead it is essential.
The jurisdiction of the cases already brought in front of various Courts in different countries is another useful tool, in so far as it could be the means for the emergence of new customary principles shared around the world. Interpretations of the precautionary principle to include also emissions, the duty of care of the State extended to climate changes and the recognition that weak measures of adaptation and mitigation are unlawful are all steps in the right direction.
Session “Legal strategies for climate justice”
Marie Toussaint – Notre affaire à tous, Luca Saltalamacchia – Civil layer assisting impacted community in Nigeria
Practical cases on climate justice – Download
- Climate law database ·
- Website of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
- Paper “Geographic disparities and moral hazards in the predicted impacts of climate change on human populations”
- “Greenhouse Gangsters vs. Climate Justice”, by Kenny Bruno, Joshua Karliner & China Brotsky, CorpWatch, November 1st, 1999