Dutch Court Breaks Political Stalemate Over Climate Action

In an unprecedented action, a court has ruled that the Dutch Government must reduce its greenhouse emissions by 25%. The landmark case was initiated by some 900 Dutch citizens and the verdict offers a legal breakthrough in a longstanding political stalemate, underlining the potential power of a well-informed grassroots lobby group in the environmental policy area.

The ruling now obliges the Dutch government to assume a 'duty of care' in protecting against irreversible climate change. It is commonly agreed that it is mitigation (greenhouse gases cuts) that will help reduce the probability of future (irreversible) change in the climatic system. The main controversy in international policy-making arises, however, from the question as to how to share the burden of these cuts and how to enforce those UN-led internationally agreed cuts.

Why 25%?

The Dutch government is already committed to the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement on greenhouse gas reductions agreed in 1997. In the most optimistic estimation, the Netherlands is currently forecasted to achieve a 17% reduction in emissions by 2020, compared to the baseline emission levels of 1990. However, this lags significantly behind the policy target that industrialized countries agreed under the Kyoto Protocol which is to secure a 25-40% cut by 2020.

There is consensus in climate science that only such large reductions of greenhouse gases will limit global average temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the level scientists say we must not breach if we are to avoid the worst risks of climate change. The disagreement starts, however, from the question as to how much each state should contribute to this reduction, and, in the same vein, how much emission rights should be allocated to each state.

Political stalemate about fairness

There are generally two ways of approaching the question of how to share burden on cutting greenhouse gases. The first approach is to appeal to fairness as equality, arguing that it is previous stocks of greenhouse gas emissions that have contributed to the wealth of industrialized nations. Fairness would require, as the argument goes, to allocate more carbon emission rights to emerging economies in order to allowing them to advance to a level of well-being more comparable with the rest of the world. Needless to say that this is an argument that is frequently deployed by developing countries in climate negotiations.

Conversely, some countries in the industrialized world utilize a second approach asserting that it is simply not fair if they bear significantly higher emission cut burdens, while fast growing emerging economies like China and India keep polluting. In this approach, which countries like Australia and Canada most exemplify, fairness would require significant, reciprocal cuts by developing countries.

Tragedy of the Commons

A second widely embraced aspect of this political stalemate over climate change is that unilateral cuts in carbon emissions is not optimal since it is the global environmental interest at stake. From this perspective, collective international action would be the best policy response.

However, this logic could easily lead to a downward spiral in policy-making of lowest common denominator responses. In other words, why accept costs on your own economy, while you are not certain that other parties would comply too? This dilemma is called The Tragedy of the Commons (referring to Garett Hardin's seminal paper published in 1986 in The Science Magazine).

The Dutch legal verdict seems to offer a way out of the impasse for the Netherlands. Acknowledging the internationally agreed emission cuts for industrializing countries (so-called Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol), the court ruled that failure by other states to meet their targets is not sufficient to justify Dutch inaction.

In other words, the Dutch Government is deemed by the landmark ruling to have a legal 'duty of care' to its citizens, and that requires accepting the minimal internationally agreed 25% emissions cuts. As for potential negative economic repercussions such reductions might entail, the court argues that those impacts are not certain, and even if they were, this would not be sufficient to justify the Dutch state's lack of action to reach the 25% threshold.

A way forward

While the full ramifications of the ruling are still unfolding (the stakes are high and the Dutch government may therefore appeal), it is already clear that it could be a landmark moment. For one thing, the verdict offers a potential legal route out of a long lasting political impasse on climate change in the Netherlands, and beyond. For another, the Urgenda movement has made a significant contribution to raising environmental awareness amongst the Dutch populace, and indeed beyond. This type of well-informed grassroots movements, with sufficient understanding of legal instruments at its disposal, may well be what is needed to help turn the tide on climate change debates in other countries too.