Unep identifies trends in global climate change litigation

Friday June 2 2017

Protestors demonstrate against US President

Protestors demonstrate against US President Donald Trump’s environmental policy outside the Global Warming and International Environmental Policy conference in Brussels in February 2017. PHOTO | AFP 


There has been a rise in cases that seek to hold governments to account for climate-related commitments and more litigation is expected from the Global South as developing countries look to the law to address the growing threat of climate change.

A new study by the UN Environment and Columbia Law School’s Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, has found that the United States has 654 climate change litigation cases - almost three times that of the rest of the world combined - and that countries in which climate change cases have been filed have tripled since 2014.


The Status of Climate Change Litigation — A Global Review presents the findings from an up to-date global climate change litigation survey. Many of the cases have been filed by citizens and NGOs.

The report describes how, in September 2015, a Pakistani lawyer’s case against the national government for failure to carry out the National Climate Change Policy of 2012, resulted in the designation of climate change focal points in several ministries to help implement the framework and the creation of a climate change commission to monitor the government’s progress.

“We need more concrete action on climate change, including addressing the root causes and helping communities adapt to the consequences,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

“The science can stand up in a court of law.” Some 177 countries recognise the right of citizens to a clean and healthy environment, and courts are increasingly being asked to define the implications of this right in this age.

With a few exceptions, governments are the defendants in climate change cases.“ Judicial decisions around the world show that courts have the authority, and the willingness, to hold governments to account for climate change,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law.  

He cited the US where climate change litigation has been rising, from the first lawsuit demanding that the US Environmental Protection Agency regulate greenhouse gas emissions, to a recent one claiming a constitutional right to a stable climate system.

“Similar litigation all over the world will continue to push governments and corporations to address the most pressing environmental challenges of our times,” Mr Burger added.


The report identifies emerging climate change litigation trends, including an expected rise in the number of climate refugee and human rights cases as a result of migration, resettlement, disaster recovery, access to resources and shifting populations.

By 2050, climate change could, according to some estimates, displace up to one billion people and that number will rise further if global warming is not kept under 2 degrees Celsius this century.

The findings make it clear that reliance on technology and non-climate policy initiatives will not be sufficient to deal with the threat of climate change.


Climate laws and policies, it concludes, are a critical part of any strategy to deal with the threat of climate change, and because of the Paris Agreement, people, companies and NGOs can now argue in some jurisdictions that their governments’ political statements must be backed up by concrete measures to mitigate climate change.

The Paris Agreement puts national laws and policies into a global context and enables litigants to construe governments’ commitments and actions as being adequate or not. As climate change litigation has grown, it has addressed a widening scope of activities, ranging from coastal development and infrastructure planning, to resource extraction, and is growing in ambition and effectiveness.

Litigation has emerged as an important feature of ongoing efforts to promote climate change mitigation and adaptation. The report provides judges, advocates, researchers, and the international community with an overview of litigation trends and descriptions of key issues that courts must resolve in the course of climate change cases.

It is also expected to contribute to a common language among practitioners around the world working to address climate change through the courts.