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4 Jan 2022

Isabella Kaminski, China Dialogue

Trends in climate litigation in 2021

"Climate litigation up in 2021, with private sector now exposed", 21 December 2021

The global surge in legal action on climate change has shown no signs of slowing this year, with more than 1,800 cases completed or in process, up from 1,500 last year.

While the vast majority of lawsuits are still from the United States, they are increasingly being filed in other jurisdictions, from Guyana to South Africa. The focus is beginning to broaden from governments to include the private sector, and there were some notable successes this year. These could provide a powerful tool to force more ambitious climate action, although there is still a long way to go to hold states and companies accountable for their emissions.

European states in the dock

Europe was a hotspot for successful litigation this year. In April, Germany’s top constitutional court ruled the government’s efforts to cut emissions not strong enough to protect future generations, thereby breaching the fundamental rights of its young people. In response, outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel pushed through a new version of the national climate law, bringing forward the target date for net zero by five years to 2045. [...]

US and Australia top the charts

Although the US is still where most lawsuits have been filed – over 1,300 at the last count – many of them have become bogged down in procedural hurdles. Plaintiffs in the most prominent national case, Juliana v the United States, in which 21 young people argue the government’s climate inaction breaches their constitutional rights, attempted and failed to reach a settlement with the justice department this year. They expect to return to court next year to continue arguing their right to make their case in full. [...]

Human rights in focus

With climate litigation cases increasingly referring to breaches of human rights – and judges making the link explicit – a new legal avenue has opened itself up for campaigners. The European Court of Human Rights, which is responsible for interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights, accepted cases from two different groups and has given them priority status. [...]

Litigation on the up in global south

While the overwhelming majority of cases continue to take place in the global north, climate litigation is growing in the global south too. [...]

The private sector enters line of fire

To date, most cases have been brought against governments. But 2021 was the year attention broadened to include the private sector, says Joana Setzer, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics specialising in climate litigation. [...]