The Climate Lawsuit of the Century: Portuguese Youth Climate Case v 33 Countries in the ECtHR


ᶦ ‘Portuguese youth are suing 33 countries over the climate crisis’

ᶦᶦ ‘Portuguese Youngsters clear major hurdles in climate lawsuit’


What you need to know:

Can positive climate action really be enforced by legislation? The severity of the climate crisis is slowly becoming more prevalent in recent legislation, but the question on all of our minds is—Will failing to abide by new climate legislation soon be unlawful? The short answer is no. However, this is something that both the UK government and larger corporations who turn a blind eye to the ongoing effects of climate change should be concerned with. In May 2019, Parliament announced climate change had become a national emergency, though this was not enough to legally compel the government to act. So, what would be enough?


The UK government brought the Climate Change Act into force in 2008, as their strategic approach to responding to climate change. The Act commits the government by law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels (net zero) by 2050, and 50% by 2025ᶦᶦᶦ. Achieving ‘net zero’ requires balancing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere to their central median pointᶦᵛ.Removing all emissions to zero would not be possible, and therefore it is expected that some will always remain.


While these drastic measures and even more drastic target goals reflect the urgency of the climate crisis, one may wonder whether the government is actually on track to reaching this target. Bad news: ‘The UK is currently not even on track to meeting its previous, less ambitious, target of 80% emission reductions by 2050’, let alone reaching net zero, according to a report by the Institute for Government. While the current targets are ambitious, this seems to be a case of all talk and no actionᵛ.


The entire basis of holding the government to account functions on a system of checks an balances, hence can the government be legally held accountable in a court of law for mishandling the climate crisis? Apparently so. A group of Portuguese youths took matters into their own hands on 3rd September 2020; the group of appellants consisting of children and young adults aged 8-21 issued a claim to the European Court of Human Rights against the council of 33 Member statesᵛᶦ. This included all of the EU 27, plus the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine. The youths claimed that government climate inaction had jeopardised their futures and wanted European governments to ramp up efforts to curb planet-heating emissions. The case has attracted widespread attention from a number of climate change charities and organisations, with the Global Legal Action network funding the legal support. Andre Oliveria, 12, recently commented: “Climate Change is a matter that brings me much anxiety and fear, because I don’t know if my generation is going to have the same life that this generation had.”ᵛᶦᶦ The European Court of Human Rights said it would greenlight the case against the countries, all of which have been compelled to respond to the claimants. As this case is currently ongoing, the progress of it can be followed under the official case title: Portuguese Youth Climate Case v 33 Countries or online at https://youth4climatejustice.org/ where members of the public can read up on the case or crowdfund their efforts.


Drastic measures such as framing the climate crisis as a human rights issue may be the necessary step required to hold the world leaders accountable. The short-term cycles of government in the UK have facilitated a system of blame-shifting which enables neglect towards the climate crisis and renders it an inheritable problem passed from leader to leader in the cycle of government turnover. It’s time to start holding both external and internal policies to account on both the national and the local level and demanding green policies for your workplaces, schools, and local councils. The only way to ensure accountability is to have a structured policy to hold establishments accountable to. Most big corporations will have policies in place regarding sustainability, review these policies and check whether enough is being done. If the generation preceding us won’t take responsibility, then we must either apply pressure to change that stance or, at the very least, take it for them.

ᶦ Grist.org [‘Portuguese youth are suing 33 countries over the climate crisis’] < https://grist.org/climate/portuguese-youth-are-suing-33-countries-over-the-climate-crisis/ > accessed 26 March 2021

ᶦᶦ Nbcnews.com [‘Portuguese youngsters clear major hurdle in European Climate lawsuit’] < https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/portuguese-youngsters-clear-major-hurdle-european-climate-lawsuit-n1249222 > accessed 26 March 2021

ᶦᶦᶦ Climate Change Committee, ‘A legal duty to act’ (The Need to Act) < https://www.theccc.org.uk/the-need-to-act/ > accessed 26 March 2021

ᶦᵛ Marcus Shephard, ‘UK net zero target’ (Institute for Government, 20 April 2020) < https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/net-zero-target > accessed 26 March 2021

ᵛ Ibid., 1.

ᵛᶦ Paul Clark, Gerry Liston, Ioannis Kalpouzos, ‘Climate Change and the European Court of Human Rights: The Portuguese Youth Case’ (Ejil:Talk!, 6 October 2020) < https://www.ejiltalk.org/climate-change-and-the-european-court-of-human-rights-the-portuguese-youth-case/ > accessed 27 March 2021

ᵛᶦᶦ Andre Oliveria, Adela Suliman, ‘Portuguese Youngsters clear major hurdle in European climate lawsuit’ (NCB News, 30 November 2020) < https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/portuguese-youngsters-clear-major-hurdle-european-climate-lawsuit-n1249222 > accessed 27 March 2021

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