The Guardian: Dutch Supreme Court Upholds Landmark Ruling Demanding #ClimateAction

Photo above courtesy of Greenpeace Netherlands; taken at the #Protestival held on 14-15 December 2019 at Schiphol International Airport

Article originally published here by Isabella Kaminski in The Guardian, 20 December 2019 at 8.08 EST

The Supreme Court of The Netherlands has upheld a ruling ordering the country’s government to do much more to cut carbon emissions, after a six-year fight for climate justice.

Climate protesters at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport last weekend. Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

The court ruled that the Dutch government had explicit duties to protect its citizens’ human rights in the face of climate change and must reduce emissions by at least 25% compared with 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

The non-profit Urgenda Foundation, which brought the case, welcomed the “groundbreaking” judgment. The original judgment in 2015 was seen as a landmark in the then nascent field of climate litigation, and inspired similar cases across the world, from Pakistan to New Zealand.

David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said it was:

“the most important climate change court decision in the world so far, confirming that human rights are jeopardised by the climate emergency and that wealthy nations are legally obligated to achieve rapid and substantial emission reductions.”

The Dutch government had previously said it would comply with the substance of the ruling, but it repeatedly appealed over the legal basis for the decision. The latest national statistics show the Netherlands is very unlikely to meet the 2020 emissions target. 

The Netherlands passed its first piece of national climate legislation in 2018, it has published a more ambitious carbon plan for 2030, and it is closing its first coal plant next year.

According to the Supreme Court, individual nations have direct obligations under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, covering the right to life and the right to private and family life.

Dennis van Berkel, a member of the legal counsel for Urgenda, said:

“The enormous importance of this case is not just that the Netherlands is obliged to act but that these principles are universal. No court outside the Netherlands is bound by this decision but the influence that this court has and the inspiration that it will give to others are really big.”

Denis van Berkel, litigation attorney for Urgenda

Van Berkel said that if the government did not comply with the ruling, Urgenda could start separate legal proceedings against it.

The Dutch climate minister, Eric Wiebes, said the government had “taken note” of decision and would issue a full response in January. He said the Netherlands had announced an “ambitious” set of measures this year to implement the judgment, although campaigners think it could go much further.

As well as inspiring cases against other national governments, Urgenda’s success has encouraged campaigners to take up legal arms against corporations. In April a group of social and environmental justice groups led by Friends of the Earth Netherlands began the process of suing the oil firm Shell, arguing that its business model threatens international climate goals and endangers human rights.

In a formal reply in November, Shell has denied it was liable. A month earlier the company’s CEO said it had “no choice” but to invest in oil and claimed it was “entirely legitimate” to do so.

“The Supreme Court’s decision has set an important precedent for the Shell case because they used similar legal arguments. It is a huge decision for all current climate litigation cases.”

Nine de Pater, a climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Netherlands

Link to Friends of the Earth Netherlands, to join their petition against Shell Oil Company.

Link to the English version of Urgenda to learn more about their legal initiative.

Two Perspectives on the EIB Investment Report 2019/2020

Short list of findings:

  • Economic climate in the EU is worsening and investment by EU firms is likely to slow down in 2020
  • EU climate mitigation investment stagnating and behind US and China
  • Europe needs to accelerate adoption of digital technologies to stay competitive

European firms are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the economic outlook according to the new EIB Investment Report 2019/2020. The report also finds that investment in climate change mitigation is lower than that of major economies like the US and China. Infrastructure investment is stuck at 1.6% of EU GDP, the lowest in 15 years and Europe is failing to reap the benefits of digital transformation.

Original article entitled EIB Investment Report 2019: Uncertainty Weighing on EU Firm Investment; Published by EIB here on 26 November 2019

The report, which reflects the results of the annual EIB Investment Survey (EIBIS) of 12,500 European businesses, recommends that the EU take advantage of historically low interest rates, increase public investment, catalyse private investment and promote efficient financial intermediation to tackle the slowdown.

“Europe cannot afford to wait out another cyclical downturn. After a lost decade of weak investment, we need to tackle the slowdown now if we are to respond to the historic challenges we are facing. The EIB, as the EU’s financial arm and climate bank, has played a crucial role in kick-starting investment in Europe after the financial crisis and we now stand ready to further support investment for a more sustainable and competitive European economy.”

Commenting on the report’s findings, EIB Vice-President Andrew McDowell 

Read the executive summary

Read the country-level analyses

The report was presented at the EIB’s Annual Economic Conference, which is jointly organised with the OECD, Columbia University and SUERF, in Luxembourg. The conference brought together high-level speakers such Sir Nicholas Stern and Mariana Mazzucato and chief economists of the European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism, OECD, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Trade Organisation.

“We have to accelerate investment to fully exploit the benefits of the digital revolution, realise our climate goals and rebuild Europe’s social cohesion. There is a long list of investments that require public intervention or a private sector that finds the right conditions to overcome uncertainty: firms’ digitalisation, innovation and business dynamism as well as smart delivery of infrastructure and public services, green innovation and energy efficiency, and e-government, e-learning and e-training.”  

According to Deborah Revoltella, Director of the EIB’s Economic Department, while presenting the report. [ . . . ]

EU climate investment not on track

The EIB Investment Report shows that, although substantial progress has been made, climate action investment in the EU is not yet on track. To achieve a net zero-carbon economy by 2050, the EU must raise total investment in its energy system and related infrastructure from 2% to 3% of GDP on average.

The European Union invested EUR 158 billion in climate change mitigation in 2018. At 1.2% of GDP, this is now marginally less than the United States (1.3%) and little over a third of China’s performance (3.3% of GDP).

While the United States leads in climate-related R&D spending, China has recently quadrupled its spending, overtaking the EU.

Europe’s weak performance in climate-related R&D is a threat to its competitiveness, given the importance that still-immature technologies will have in the transition.

To continue reading the original article, link here.

Another Perspective from ClientEarth foundation to the EIB 2019/2020 Report

Response to this report per the official News release from ClientEarth.org of 13 November 2019, entitled Major Step Forward: European Investment Bank to Stop Funding Fossil Fuel Projects, original publication here

ClientEarth welcomes the European Investment Bank’s landmark lending policy and the Board’s decision to exclude gas finance from it.

“The EIB has set the standard for banks worldwide with this move – and clearly signalled that oil, gas and  coal lending is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement goals. This is a major step in the flight of capital from fossil fuels. While we are disappointed to have seen such strong initial pushback from countries like Germany, which claims high standards on climate, the passing of this policy shows a change of gear for clean investment.”

ClientEarth lawyer Peter Barnett

Although the policy will kick in at the end of 2021, a year later than previously proposed, ClientEarth lawyers have warned that any decision to fund new gas or other fossil fuel projects before then would not be in line with the Paris Agreement and will risk legal challenge.

For further reading the original article by ClientEarth.org: link here.

Canada: Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act Upheld in Ontario Court of Appeal

11 July 2019: a short update on climate legislation in Canada

This recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision has the potential to create definitive clarity in the difficult subject of proper legislation and climate change. The Court found the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act “constitutional” and within Parliament’s jurisdiction to legislate, i.e. to impose charges regulatory in nature, which are connected to the Act — and are not taxes.

The case itself deals with the validity of carbon pricing. The short background is that the Canadian federal government implemented carbon pricing and the Ontario provincial government appealed the decision saying that such a “carbon tax” infringed on provincial rights. They were overruled, with the Court of Appeal noting that climate change and therefore Greenhouse Gas (GHG) regulation is an issue of national concern.

This is one of the first serious discussion in any Canadian court (there was an earlier decision in Saskatchewan on the same issue which was not as well written) about climate change and the constitution, one that will inevitably go to the Supreme Court of Canada this or next year.

The first part of the decision (p. 3 onwards) does an excellent job of giving a background on GHGs and Climate Change and recognizes that combating climate change is a collective effort.

It is written in plain language and rather succinctly.

Having a decision like this signals that in future cases, Canadian courts hopefully will not have to grapple with the first hurdle of addressing climate change and the science behind it.

Vox: Restoring forests may be one of our most powerful weapons in fighting climate change

Adding 2.2 billion acres of tree cover would capture two-thirds of man-made carbon emissions, a new study found.

10 July 2019; Originally published by the digital website Vox.com, author Umair Irfan  and updated Jul 5, 2019, 12:04pm EDT; re-published under the Creative Commons license.

Allowing the earth’s forests to recover could soak up a significant amount of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. 

The worldwide assessment of current and potential forestation using satellite imagery appeared Thursday in the journal Science. It estimates that letting saplings regrow on land where forests have been cleared would increase global forested area by one-third and remove 205 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s two-thirds of the roughly 300 billion metric tons of carbon humans have put up there since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. 

“The point is that [reforestation is] so much more vastly powerful than anyone ever expected,” said Thomas Crowther, a professor of environmental systems science at ETH Zurich and a co-author of the paper. “By far, it’s the top climate change solution in terms of carbon storage potential.”

Some climate scientists who were not involved with the study disagree with its calculations and are warning against its “silver bullet” message. Still, supporting natural systems that can soak up carbon is widely accepted as a major component of any climate change mitigation strategy — in addition to deploying clean energy, switching to electric vehicles, and curbing consumption overall. 

The challenges of such a massive reforestation effort are immense, however: Deforestation is still rampant and is accelerating in some parts of the world. Rather than building up forests as a resource to offset greenhouse gas emissions, we’re currently losing them, and emitting more carbon in the process. 

Restoring forests like the Amazon rainforest has the potential to offset huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. Credit: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

If the goal is to fight climate change, countries have to reverse course on how they use forests. Another paper out this week in Science Advances offers clear advice on where to focus: places where forest restoration would be most viable and beneficial. But as average temperatures keep climbing, forests may lose their effectiveness in soaking up emissions, so time is running out. 

There’s a huge potential for forest restoration, but we’re still moving in the wrong direction

Let’s take a moment to recall why plants are so critical to the global carbon cycle.

All plants use sunlight, water, soil nutrients, and carbon dioxide to generate energy and to grow. These plants then die and decay. This returns some of the carbon back to the sky and leaves some carbon in the ground. Over time, this leads to a net reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. Plants also move moisture into the air and release aerosols that can contribute to precipitation.

So plants in general and trees in particular play important roles in regulating weather and the climate around the world. 

Humans have disrupted many of these patterns. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have cut down 46 percent of all trees. Just since 1990, the world has lost 1.3 million square kilometers of forested area. The situation is even more dire in the tropics, where less than half of forests remain standing today. 

The modern world’s insatiable appetite for wood, land, agriculture, and mineral extraction continues to drive deforestation. In the Amazon rainforest, one soccer field-size area is clear-cut every minute. 

This chemically deforested area of the Amazon jungle was caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in southeast Peru. Illegal mining has destroyed more than 11,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest.
This chemically deforested area of the Amazon jungle was caused by illegal mining activities in the river basin of the Madre de Dios region in southeast Peru. Illegal mining has destroyed more than 11,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest. 

At the same time, we’re pumping a record volume of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — 2.6 million pounds per second — from myriad sources, warming the planet as a whole. While some forests may benefit from more carbon dioxide in the air, others dry out, increasing risks of wildfires. Higher temperatures can also change rainfall patterns, leaving some trees vulnerable to drought or pests like bark beetles. In other words, climate change is a mixed bag for forests. 

The world’s forests have the potential to be carbon-sucking machines

It’s important to remember that forests are not just trees. They are whole self-regulating ecosystems, from the soil bacteria that fix nitrogen to fertilize roots to the rodents and birds that spread seeds to the fungi that rot away carcasses and break down tree trunks. 

All these organisms working together allow forests to push moisture into the air and pull carbon into the ground. Nonetheless, trees are a useful proxy for the work that forests do, particularly with respect to climate change. 

Trees are usually 50 percent carbon by weight, and the vast majority of that comes from carbon dioxide absorbed from the air. A silver maple sapling, for example, would sequester 400 pounds of carbon dioxide over 25 years. That absorption can change based on the species of tree, its size, its age, its location, the soil it’s growing in, and the climate around it. Multiply that by the millions of trees across the world’s woodlands and you can get a sense of just how hard forests are working to keep our greenhouse gases in check. 

Forests may also have other effects that can offset some of their carbon absorption. Dark leaves on trees can cause local temperatures to rise. Forests also emit aerosols, some of which have heat-trapping impacts, so reforestation does not necessarily lead to a straightforward reduction in global warming.

But Crowther and his colleagues also wanted to figure out how much carbon-sucking potential we’ve lost due to deforestation and how much we could get back by allowing forests spring back up — and planting them — in the places they once were.

There is a distinction here between restoration, also known as reforestation, and afforestation. The latter refers to planting new trees where there were none before. The former refers to bringing trees back to areas that were previously forested, whether that’s through planting trees or allowing the woodlands to regrow on their own. 

Crowther and his colleagues used global satellite images to assess tree canopies, figuring out where forests are and where they could reemerge. They found that there are 2.2 billion acres, or 0.9 billion hectares, worth of forest restoration potential. That’s an area almost as big as the United States. Crowther hinted at these findings earlier this year and noted that this would amount to growing 1.2 trillion new trees across the planet.

A map of the potential for forest restoration around the world.
A map of the potential for forest restoration around the world. 

From there, the scientists calculated the carbon removal potential of the newly restored forests. They concluded that the new forested areas would soak up an astounding two-thirds of humanity’s emissions in the atmosphere since the 19th century. 

However, Laura Duncanson, an assistant professor and a forest researcher at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study, said this estimate is simplistic and doesn’t take into account much of the regional variation that can influence a forest’s capacity to absorb carbon. “I would take that as a very broad brush, back-of-the-envelope-type potential carbon sink [calculation],” she said. “It’s highlighting the potential of forests, but there’s so much more research to do.”

Other researchers, writing in The Conversation, also suggested that Crowther’s carbon storage estimate is too high, and ignores the amount of carbon already in the soil and the fact that forests can take centuries to mature. The researchers, University College London professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis, noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that restored forests could capture 57 billion metric tons of carbon by the end of the century, just one-sixth of the carbon in the atmosphere. 

And still others call it flat-out wrong: 

Forests are facing intense competition from industry and agriculture. That’s why researchers are so keen to show their services to humanity. 

Another study out this week tries to offer more specific guidance on where we should be focusing reforestation efforts. 

Robin Chazdon, a forest ecologist and an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, wanted to figure out which restored forests would deliver the most net benefits to humanity. Beyond mitigating climate change, trees help purify water, clean air, and provide homes to wildlife, so there’s a lot to take into account.

In a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, Chazdon and her collaborators came up with a scoring system for the world’s forests to figure out where restoration would yield the greatest benefits. 

They found that tropical rainforests — in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, India, Colombia, and Madagascar — in particular stood out. That’s because these regions are home to a huge amount of biodiversity and play a major role in the planet’s air and water cycle. Without these forests, these regions would see big changes in rainfall patterns, reductions in air quality, and the loss of some of the most unique species in the world. 

Chazdon and her team then identified restoration hot spots, regions that scored in the top 10 percent in their evaluation. Put together, these hot spots span an area totaling 101 million hectares, about the size of Spain and Sweden put together, scattered around the world. What it shows, according to Chazdon, is that every part of the world has regions that would yield huge dividends from reforestation. 

Most of the highest areas with the highest scores for restoration potential are in tropical rainforests.
Most of the highest areas with the highest scores for restoration potential are in tropical rainforests.

“Our sense is that these really good bets for restoration are found all over the world and many countries can participate in these activities,” Chazdon said. “We did find some concentrations of these highest scores were distributed all over the tropics.” 

In particular, the highest average scores were in African countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. “These countries, even though they might not have really large areas of tropical rainforest, the areas that they do have are very important restoration opportunities,” she said. 

However, many of these hot spots are already being used in other ways, like for farming and livestock grazing. Local demand for materials, land, and agriculture is often why these forests were cleared in the first place. That means a restoration program in these regions has to show that it delivers benefits that exceed the current uses of the land. 

Looking at the carbon sequestration potential alone may not be enough to make that case, particularly since most countries don’t have a mechanism that rewards taking in carbon dioxide emissions. 

Forests’ other valuable functions, like purifying water, mitigating air pollution, and drawing tourists, also help make a strong policy case for restoring forests while creating pressure to deter further deforestation.

But Chazdon noted that it’s hard to attach a price tag to every benefit we get from restoring forests, like increasing habitats for endangered species. A purely monetary calculation can backfire if the value of cutting down the forest suddenly increases. And many people who live on cleared forests subsist on their farming, so they need to be compensated and given alternative livelihoods if that land is going to be repurposed. So the biggest hurdle may be coming up with an economic system that benefits the environment while protecting the most vulnerable.

“To really make this work economically kind of requires a frameshift in the way we generate economies,” Chazdon said. “The business as usual approach is what got us into this problem, so to get out, it is going to require some innovative mechanisms.” 

We need to prioritize forest restoration as a means to fight climate change, but we may be running out of time to do it

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that the world may have as little as 12 years left to limit warming this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Keeping global emissions in line with that goal demands a full-court press across all sectors of society, from changing how we produce food to generating all of our power from clean sources. 

But climate change isn’t simply a function of how much greenhouse gases we emit; it depends on how we damage the things that take up carbon. That’s why restoring forests stands to be a massive global opportunity to combat warming. The IPCC is now planning to release a special report this year focusing on land use, which will include forest management. 

Greenpeace environmental activists take part during Save the Amazon in Brazil demonstration in front of the Brazilian embassy on April 24, 2019 in The Hague,Netherlands
Greenpeace environmental activists take part during Save the Amazon in Brazil demonstration in front of the Brazilian Embassy on April 24, 2019, in the Hague, Netherlands.

Climate change in turn is starting to affect forests and their ability to store carbon. Crowther noted that warming is making some of the most carbon-absorbing forest areas less hospitable to their native species. Climate change-exacerbated weather extremes like torrential downpours can also damage forests. That means restoration efforts will have more climate benefits the sooner they are implemented and yield diminishing returns over time.

Duncanson, however, said that it’s not clear what direction carbon absorption will go under climate change. While some regions may become less hospitable to trees, others may benefit from increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so extrapolating forest behavior from the present into the future may not make sense. 

“We have a lot more certainty with how forests will respond to current growing conditions than in the future,” Duncanson said. “They might be more robust than we think. They might be even better carbon sinkers in the future. We don’t know.”

Also, not every bit of land that can be reforested will be because there are other constraints. Even if a government were inclined to restore a forest, there is a finite amount of money, resources, and political capital to do so. So despite the theoretical potential of countering two-thirds of human-made emissions, it will be breathtakingly hard.

Duncanson said that Chazdon’s and Crowther’s papers both stand out for getting specific in identifying regions where trees could regrow. “It’s nice to see that we have gone to the point of actually having maps of areas to restore forests,” she said. 

She is working on a project, known as the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), that uses LIDAR aboard the International Space Station to create a three-dimensional map of the world’s forests. From there, researchers hope to get a far more accurate estimate of how trees take in carbon dioxide and what that means for the global climate. “I think that will be a nice extension of this work,” Duncanson said. 


Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the area with forest restoration potential. It is 2.2 billion acres.