Skip to content
Home » Blog » Do governments have a duty to protect people from climate change?

Do governments have a duty to protect people from climate change?

We have just learnt that March 2024 is the 10th consecutive month to break temperature records.

Copernicus: March 2024 is the tenth month in a row to be the hottest on record | Copernicus

The European Court of Human Rights has just declared that the Swiss government’s inaction on climate change has violated the human rights of its citizens – a decision which the British Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero isn’t happy with, saying  “I’m concerned by the Strasbourg Court decision. How we tackle climate change affects our economic, energy, and national security. Elected politicians are best placed to make those decisions.”

It is highly political – because, as the Telegraph points out, now governments have a duty to protect people from climate change:

It would mean that individuals could seek redress with the Strasbourg court and compensation if their governments failed to take sufficient measures to prevent their citizens suffering the consequences of climate change. The cases have prompted a backlash from the UK Government whose lawyer Sudhanshu Swaroop KC told the court in one of the cases that it was effectively turning the court into a legislator. He said the complainants were “asking the court to act as legislators rather than judges and to legislate for a global challenge without having global jurisdiction”.

The legal challenge is based on the claim that failure to tackle climate change sufficiently to protect the public amounts to a breach of article 2, the right to life, and article 8, the right to a family life.

What ECHR’s ruling means for future litigation is what is worrying other European governments, who have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights:

The ruling against the Swiss government sends a clear message that it has a legal duty to increase its efforts to combat climate change in order to protect human rights,” said Lucy Maxwell, co-director of the Climate Litigation Network. Switzerland needed to set, and adhere to, its own carbon budget and implement emissions reduction targets, she said. “That’s a pretty clear list of things that the Swiss government needs to do. Everyone will be watching.” If Switzerland does not update its targets, further litigation could be carried out at the national level and courts could issue financial penalties.

“We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond. The ruling reinforces the vital role of courts – both international and domestic – in holding governments to their legal obligations to protect human rights from environmental harm,” Joie Chowdhury, senior attorney at the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law, said. “While today we did not see ideal outcomes in all the three cases, overall today is a watershed legal moment for climate justice and human rights.”

In fact, the UK government already has a legal duty to act:

The Climate Change Act requires the government to set legally-binding ‘carbon budgets’ to act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target. A carbon budget is a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policy-makers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare. The CCC advises on the appropriate level of each carbon budget. The budgets are designed to reflect a cost-effective way of achieving the UK’s long-term climate change objectives. Once a carbon budget has been set, the Climate Change Act places an obligation on the Government to prepare policies to ensure the budget is met.

Which brings us to the question of who is responsible to bring down greenhouse gases. The Economist asks: What responsibilities do individuals have to stop climate change? Whilst the Guardian answers: Individuals can’t solve the climate crisis. Governments need to step up.