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June 28, 2015

Dutch courage: rational thought fuels emissions reduction

In the eyes of tomorrow, the ruling of three Dutch judges that its own government's emissions target is illegal may well be seen as a 'landmark' and 'milestone' but today it is a welcome interjection of rational thought in an often irrational debate.

By Adam Leach


Rational thought is alive and well in the Dutch judiciary, even within the generally hyperbolic domain of the climate change debate.

Presiding over a case inspired by environmental campaign group the Urgenda Foundation and brought by 886 of its citizens against its government’s policy and target on reducing carbon emissions, the three Dutch judges surveyed the environmental ambitions of the rest of the developed world and ruled that its own fell illegally short. As a consequence, it ruled that the target must be increased to fall in line with the lower end of the accepted norm.

Quickly weighing its legacy, Greenpeace opined it to be a ‘game-changer’ while the Climate Action Network Europe heralded it as a ‘milestone in the history of climate legislation’. Such assessments may prove prescient in a 2050 world where the catastrophic consequences of climate change have been safely averted, but in the cold light of day, weighing the words on the page of the judgement, things are a lot less grandiose but no less substantial.

In April, Vancouver, Canada, committed to run on 100% renewable energy.

Pointedly, a crucial passage explaining the verdict points out the bleeding obvious: "Based on the State’s current policy, the Netherlands will achieve a reduction of 17% at most in 2020, which is below the norm of 25% to 40% for developed countries". This was no irrational outcry for radical action, but simple, basic arithmetic. All of the Netherlands peers were going further and at the very least it should fall in line.

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Much of the commentary on the ruling centred on the apparent boldness of the court to enter the political domain, but the judges were at pains to point out they were merely fulfilling there duty to provide legal protection, even in matters where the aggressor was the government. That was why it erred on the side of restraint and set the emissions target at just 25%.

A country that can do more on carbon emissions should do more

The government, unless it successfully appeals the decision, will have to reshape its ambitions and policy, increase renewable energy generation and cut coal. But according to the judges, that will not be a monumental challenge. "The costs of the measures ordered by the court are not unacceptably high," it read.

"The government, unless it successfully appeals the decision, will have to reshape its ambitions and policy, increase renewable energy generation and cut coal."

Pointing out that the government holds a ‘duty of care’ to protect and improve the living environment, it quashed the merits of arguing that with an issue of such global significance, small countries should hide behind their small size. Not grandiose, not controversial, the passage of the judgement was straightforward common sense with a hint of aspiration: "Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this."

Much was made of the ruling’s legacy mere moments after it was passed. It holds no legal weight beyond its borders, but is hoped to inspire a series of similar suits. In countries at least living up to the norm, its relevance will be restricted but in the outliers, those delivering well below their capabilities, it should provide welcome momentum if nothing else.

Whether it is the ‘game-changer’ or the ‘milestone’ it has been claimed to be is for the future to decide, but boiled down to its densest the ruling still stands as a powerful and strong statement, if a little unsexy. When a country could simply ‘do more’, it should ‘do more’.

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