Urgenda two years on: What impact has the landmark climate lawsuit had?

Urgenda two years on: What impact has the landmark climate lawsuit had?
The Dutch Supreme Court decision in 2019 made headlines around the world. Photo: Chantal Bekker

Urgenda has become synonymous with a particular kind of lawsuit brought against a state for inaction on climate change. What impact it has had both in the Netherlands and internationally?

In late 2019, the Netherlands' top court made headlines when it ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 levels, as its fair share to combat the climate crisis.

The landmark decision made the country a test case for tougher global climate policies, requiring sharp cuts in major emission sources such as manufacturing, energy generation, transport and agriculture to meet its tough goal.

Two and a half years on, I caught up with Urgenda lawyer Dennis van Berkel about the ruling’s impact on the ground.

He tells me that, even though Urgenda had won its case in all the lower courts, government lawyers were anticipating that it would be overturned at some point. “So although officially the government was bound by it and said that they would abide by it, they weren't treating it with the urgency that it deserved.”

It was only when the final Supreme Court ruling came through that major changes began. In spring 2020 the state announced big cuts to coal generation, while an interim ‘caretaker’ government in place from March 2021 set out a further package directed at implementing the Urgenda judgment.

Although it welcomed these measures, Urgenda did not feel that was enough and last year threatened to start legal proceedings again.

Van Berkel says the government was “lucky” to meet the 25% target in 2020, attributing it mostly to the economic downturn forced caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and it was missed the following year as the world settled back into its usual patterns.

The government was hampered to some extent by legal action from major utility companies such as RWE and Uniper which sued the country for compensation under the Energy Charter Treaty for its phase-out of coal power.

New government

However, Urgenda's combative tone shifted following a change of Dutch government over the new year. The incoming coalition government had made climate a big part of its platform and reserved €35bn for climate-related measures.

While the Netherlands may not meet its emissions target for this year, Urgenda seems reassured that the government is now taking it seriously. “They started late”, says van Berkel, “but they’re doing a lot. There’s been a real change in policy.”

The Dutch budget now explicitly lists ‘Urgenda’ measures that need to happen in order to reduce national emissions.

Legal action remains on the table, says van Berkel. “But this is a very dynamic world we’re living in. We’re still in conversation with the government.”

He says there has also been a recognition by both the government and the Netherlands’ Environmental Assessment Agency that the judgment means the country must continue to reduce its emissions every year – not just in 2020 – and that it must aim for the more ambitious end of the scale. This had been challenged by some climate sceptics.

The most likely target for potential legal action is therefore the country’s own goal of a 49% emission cut by 2030. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency calculated in October 2021 that additional climate policies would be required to achieve it.

Constructive role

Van Berkel stresses that Urgenda is not primarily a litigious organisation. “We were always – we are – an organisation for innovation and sustainability. We always had this very constructive role, the organisation that presented the ‘Yes we can!’ solutions. And that role has also given us a very large network in the Netherlands with all the people that know what needs to happen.”

Even while it was bringing its landmark court case, Urgenda presented the government with a long list of practical measures that it said could be put in place to make the required emission cuts.

“Generally the way that we have dealt with the legal proceedings, and the constructive position, has given us a lot of credit. I think we are very well respected throughout the political field and people know that when we say something that we're serious about it, and that you can also ask us for honest opinions about what needs to happen.

“It's not just the threat. Obviously, the lawsuit helps to be taken seriously. But the former minister of climate and economic affairs… has also said in public that he very much respects Urgenda and likes to refer to what we say because we provide real solutions.”

“I do now think that now it would be entirely different if such a judgment happened here.”

Van Berkel says that, as well as influencing the government, the case has shifted public opinion about climate change in the Netherlands. “I do now think that now it would be entirely different if such a judgment happened here.”

The lawsuit has arguably had a bigger impact beyond Dutch borders.

‘Urgenda’ has become synonymous with a particular kind of lawsuit that challenges a government’s efforts to mitigate dangerous climate change by curbing national greenhouse gas emissions.

A paper published in the Journal of Human Rights and the Environment notes that, since the first decision of the Dutch court in 2015, there has been a surge in Urgenda-style cases brought before national courts from Asia Pacific, to the Americas to Europe – as well as before several international bodies – and they have been successful in a number of countries, including Germany, Ireland, Nepal and Colombia.

Success stories “can lead to a significant increase in a country’s overall mitigation ambition, as illustrated in the Netherlands following the Urgenda case”, the paper concludes.

Its success has also been credited with boosting the wider climate litigation movement, which is now taking on the private sector.

These cases have not all happened organically. Urgenda founded the Climate Litigation Network to help people in other countries bring similar action and share the tonnes of knowledge it has accumulated.

I ask van Berkel if he has been surprised by the proliferation of Urgenda-style cases.

“I've always thought it was inevitable. I've always very much believed that this would work in other jurisdictions, which was the whole reason why we really pushed for helping others that were interested in this,” he says.

“But I have to be honest, I do think that if you look at how fast the legal development has gone, and how fast there's now recognition internationally – even the IPCC recognising that climate litigation is an important tool for climate governance – I think that that has gone faster than I would have dreamt possible.”