The court of appeals in Brussels has ruled that Belgium must cut its carbon emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels and do it by 2030, according to a report by The Guardian. As of the end of 2021, the country had only managed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 24%. The court ruled the country’s climate targets are “clearly insufficient” and ordered the government to cut emissions faster. The court rejected arguments that Belgium’s impact on the climate crisis was limited by its small size and found its climate governance to date had violated human rights.
The Court of Appeal in Brussels ruled that the Belgian state, the Flemish Region, and the Brussels-Capital Region had not made sufficient efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to BNN News. The court deemed this a violation of, among other things, the European Convention on Human Rights. For the first time, federal, Flemish, and Brussels authorities have been assigned binding reduction targets. Belgium, following the Netherlands, is the second country globally where a court has imposed such explicit reduction targets.
The Wheels Of Justice Grind Slowly In Belgium
Belgium, Flanders, and Brussels now must jointly decide who does what to achieve the objective of a 55% reduction. The ruling came as part of a case that Klimaatzaak had filed against the Belgian state nine years ago on behalf of 85,000 claimants. It argued that the Belgian government was not doing enough to combat climate change, thereby violating societal duty of care and the right to life and family life of its citizens. The ruling builds on a previous verdict that found Belgium’s climate policy inadequate by ordering the government to cut emissions faster.
Klimaatzaak had also demanded a penalty of 1 million euros per month, but the court is awaiting emission figures from 2022 to 2024. This win is a milestone that has been almost a decade in the making. On its website, the group says, “This lawsuit is necessary because temperature records continue to be broken, because flooding is becoming more frequent… but above all because there is no real Belgian climate policy. We’ve seen in the Netherlands that this can be enforced via legal action. the Dutch climate organisation Urgenda won a similar case that has led to an ambitious climate law.”
Zakia Khattabi, the Federal climate minister, said in a post on X that the judgment — together with the European Commission’s expected response to Belgium’s national climate and energy plan — “constitute levers to strengthen and give credibility to our climate policies”.
The governments will now have to set a 2030 target of at least 55%, a level of ambition greater than its current obligations of 47% under EU effort-sharing rules.
Scientists warn that the new target will still not be enough to keep extreme weather from rapidly growing more violent. An analysis from the Grantham Institute in March found that Belgium would have to cut emissions at least 61% by 2030 to keep the planet from heating 1.5ºC above pre-industrial temperatures, the level for which world leaders have promised to aim. If the right to pollute were to be shared out more equally between everyone on the planet, Belgium’s cuts would have to be even deeper, reaching 81% by 2030.
Speaking to The Guardian last month, Khattabi said she knew that the science called for even faster action. “I know that, and I’m convinced of that, but I work on a political reality. And I will be happy if we achieve our goal of 55%. Because of our institutional architecture, it’s difficult to have a national [climate] law. Most environmental and climate policy is in the hands of the regions. The measures that we can take are to facilitate the work of the regions.”
Per person, Belgians are some of the biggest polluters on the planet. But their ambitions to clean up their economy have lagged behind their neighbors. The Netherlands is shooting for a 49% cut in emissions by the end of the decade, France 50%, Germany 65% and the UK a 68% cut.
Despite the court”s ruling, scientists have praised Belgium for its offshore wind farms, which are among the largest in the world, and its efforts to electrify company car fleets — an important part of cleaning up the transport sector. Khattabi said she hoped pressure from civil society and industry would help speed up political shifts. “I’m on the ground all week and I meet the industries and companies who are moving. And thankfully, they are moving faster than politics.”
US Climate Trials Grind Forward
Americans can’t gloat that their climate based lawsuits are moving any faster than the one in Belgium. Juliana Vs. US was filed in 2016 and is hardly any closer to trial than the day it was filed. Even if it gets heard and a judgement is rendered in favor of the plaintiffs, there will be lengthy appeals before the case finally finds its way to the US Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices were suckled by fossil fuel interests their entire careers, thanks to the Federalist Society created by Charles Koch and his oil soaked friends.
There are a multitude of lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies by states and municipalities in state courts but none has yet gone to trial except in Montana, where a courageous state court judge ruled earlier this year that the state constitution guarantees its citizens a clean and safe environment. The forces of darkness are now busy trying to overturn that ruling even though it is in strict accordance with the explicit provisions of the Montana constitution. Here is Section I of Article IX of that document:
In Section 1 — Protection and Improvement, Article IX:
(1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.
(2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty.
(3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.
Things in law seldom get much clearer than that.
The question remains, however, of what should the proper role of courts be to climate litigation? Isn’t that what policy makers in the legislative and executive branches are supposed to do? But what if those people refuse to faithfully discharge their responsibility to the citizenry?
Conservatives in the US abhor judicial activism, but is there a point where the climate emergency become so extreme that a dollop of judicial activism is called for? Should we allow irreversible damage to the environment in the name of ideological purity? These are questions courts around the world will need to wrestle with as nations continue to pay lip service to climate targets while further increasing their emissions. We won’t have much need of courts and judges when most of us are dead.