Penn experts weigh in on Dutch climate change ruling

As the world prepares for another global conversation about climate change at the annual Conference of Parties (COP21) conference in Paris in December, a court decision in the Netherlands has added a new twist.

Dutch citizens sued their government over the country’s climate change policies, saying they were insufficient and negligent, and recently, a district court in The Hague ruled against the government, mandating that it raise target levels for cutting emissions. Though an appeal is in process, the case could still have broad implications for such policies worldwide. 

To discuss what this means for global energy policy, Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR), in collaboration with the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center and Perry World House, brought the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Roger Cox, to campus on Nov. 17, along with legal experts Veerle Heyvaert and Lucas Bergkamp from London and Brussels. Cary Coglianese, the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law at Penn and director of the PPR, moderated.

“In the political process, it’s hard to convince legislatures or heads of executive branches to impose the kinds of costly changes needed for an economy to become less carbon intensive,” Coglianese says. “If the politicians can’t solve the problem, maybe the judges can? Indeed, that’s the approach that happened in the Netherlands.”

Specifically, the ruling said the Dutch must decrease emissions by 25 percent by 2020 rather than the 17 percent it is currently working toward.

“The Dutch government would be on the hook for raising the targets and actually implementing them,” explains Mark Alan Hughes, director of the Kleinman Center and a professor of practice in PennDesign.

Such action is unparalleled, Coglianese adds.

“If this were to stand, it gives the court system in the Netherlands much more power over policy matters. It also becomes a precedent,” he says. “Another court might cite this opinion and say in another context that the government has a general duty to act. Do we then have a system of governing by the judiciary?”

For that reason, the Dutch government is proceeding with an appeal despite generally supporting the more stringent targets.

With COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, less than a month away, such conversations are topical. The 150-plus participating countries have already submitted individual goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to keep the planet from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. But unlike previous summits, this one takes a different tack, according to Hughes.

“We’ve largely stepped back from the scope of having a top-down, comprehensive treaty-like arrangement to meet climate goals,” he says, “and instead have adopted a much more bottom-up approach.”

COP21 offers a venue for idea exchange—and perhaps a ratcheting up of commitments from individual countries. Current proposals add up to global mean temperatures still rising 2.7 degrees Celsius, falling shy of what scientists agree is safe for the planet.

Dutch Climate Change Lawsuit