Blog: German High Court win for climate activists is good news for the Arctic

The German Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) on January 16, 2017 in Karlsruhe, Germany. In April, the court agreed that several provisions in the country’s Federal Climate Change Act of 2019 to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 were insufficient, and violated freedoms in the country’s constitution.
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In Germany, where I live, the country’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, – unnoticed by much of the international media – recently issued a game-changing verdict in a case initiated by campaigners supported by groups including Fridays for Future and Greenpeace. 

The plaintiffs argued the government was failing to act on climate change. The court agreed that several provisions in the country’s Federal Climate Change Act of 2019 to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 were insufficient, and violated freedoms in the country’s constitution, the Basic Law. The court also ruled that the act fails to create emissions reduction responsibilities after 2030.

The right to climate justice

According to the court, “one generation must not be allowed to consume large portions of the CO2 budget while bearing a relatively minor share of the reduction effort if this would involve leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and expose their lives to comprehensive losses of freedom.”

This is a major breakthrough in the global battle to link climate to human rights. The annual emission amounts allowed until 2030 by the German Climate Change Act are incompatible with fundamental rights insofar as they lack sufficient specification for further emission reductions from 2021 onwards”, the court ruled. It has told the government it has been neglecting its duties to younger generations and obliged it to remedy the situation – with a deadline imposed, necessitating immediate action.

The court obliges the government to “enact provisions by 31 December 2022 that specify in greater detail how the reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions are to be adjusted for periods after 2020.” This is a major development. Internationally, it did not seem to receive as much public attention as it should have done. This is a big deal, and will serve as a basis for future claims, not only in Germany. We are seeing the highest court in one of today’s major economies and influential climate players granting young people the right to have their government enact legislation to put the brakes on global warming a.s.a.p. and ensure they are not left with an even higher burden than emissions to date have already imposed upon them.

“The challenged provisions (of the Federal Climate Change Act of 12 December 2019) … violate the freedoms of the complainants, some of whom are still very young. The provisions irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens onto periods after 2030. The fact that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced follows from the Basic Law, among other things”.

The Basic Law, Germany’s constitution, “encompasses the necessity to treat the natural foundations of life with such care and to leave them in such condition that future generations who wish to continue preserving these foundations are not forced to engage in radical abstinence.” I am not usually a fan of reading court judgements or other legal documents, but it warms my heart to read this one.

Song text at Fridays for Future protest, Bonn, Germany (Irene Quaile)
Other countries’ inaction is no excuse

The “international dimension” of the court order also makes interesting reading:

“The obligation to take climate action (arising from the Basic Law) is not invalidated by the fact that the climate and global warming are worldwide phenomena and that the problems of climate change cannot therefore be resolved by the mitigation efforts of any one state on its own”, the court says. It possesses a special international dimension, it continues, and “obliges the state to involve the supranational level in seeking to resolve the climate problem. The state cannot evade its responsibility by pointing to greenhouse gas emissions in other states. On the contrary, the particular reliance on the international community here gives rise to the constitutional necessity to actually implement one’s own climate action measures at the national level and not to create incentives for other states to undermine the required cooperation.”

What an encouraging development as we gear up to the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November.

The German government rushed to respond by preparing changes to the flawed climate legislation (for which, of course, it bears the responsibility), in the run-up to a September general election, where climate issues are high on the agenda and the country’s Green Party is challenging to become the strongest party.

The Netherlands High Court issued a similar verdict in 2019.

The message hits home

There is an increasing – long overdue – sense of urgency around the world about the need to put the brakes on climate change. US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate brought some new announcements of pledges and targets. The Climate Action Tracker, (CAT) an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organisations tracking climate action since 2009, says those announcements together with others announced since September 2020 have reduced their estimate of warming by 0.2°C. But that still means the planet would warm by an estimated 2.4°C by the end of the century – way beyond the limit of “well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”, set in the Paris Agreement.

Fridays for Future call for 1.5°C. (Irene Quaile)

Current global warming is already at 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the run-up to the Glasgow conference, countries have to up their ambitions. There is an increasing awareness that “net zero” targets, so far adopted or under consideration by 131 countries covering 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, are not the most important issue at the moment. “It is the updated 2030 NDC (nationally determined contributions submitted to the UNFCC) …that contribute the most to the drop in projected warming compared to our last estimate, highlighting the importance of stronger near-term targets”, says CAT in its May 2021 analysis. Earlier dates for reductions lower cumulative emissions, bringing us closer to the long-term goals.

This is line with the verdict by Germany’s Constitutional Court. It means states cannot keep putting off action until a later legislative period and look only to their own time in office and the prospects of being re-elected.

The crunch comes when governments have to adopt policies to actually meet the targets they put on the table. CAT estimates that with currently implemented policies, we would get to a 2.9°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

Icy Svalbard from the air. (Irene Quaile)
It’s not too late

So what does all this mean for the icy north of the planet?

In its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, published in 2019, the IPCC stresses how keeping to a lower emissions pathway would make key differences to the extent of impacts on the cryosphere:

“In a high emissions scenario, many ocean- and cryosphere-dependent communities are projected to face adaptation limits (e.g. biophysical, geographical, financial, technical, social, political and institutional) during the second half of the 21st century.

Low emission pathways, for comparison, limit the risks from ocean and cryosphere changes in this century and beyond and enable more effective responses … whilst also creating co-benefits.”

We cannot turn back the clock. But the faster we reduce our emissions and reach carbon neutrality, the less damage there will be to the icy north and the rest of the planet.

The IPCC concludes by highlighting “the urgency of prioritising timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action.”

Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards wrote a piece in the Guardian on May 6 2021 after the publication of research she carried out with colleagues “to provide a coherent picture of the future of the world’s land ice”.

“We can’t stop rising sea levels, but we still have a chance to slow them down”, is the headline.

The scientists conclude that limiting global warming to 1.5°C could slow down the melting of ice.

“Many of my co-authors work in the cold, often punishing environments of glaciers and ice sheets. We always had in mind the real-world implications – the irreversible loss of these unique landscapes, and the impacts on those who live at the coasts,” Edwards writes.

Ice will melt. Sea levels will rise. “How much, though, is still up to us,” Edwards concludes.

Young activists, “rising with the seas.” (Irene Quaile)

The growing interest in environmental and climate issues gives reason for hope.

We have never seen the degree of awareness around environmental matters similar to what we’re seeing now,”  was what UNEP chief Inger Andersen said to me in an interview not long after she was appointed in 2019. She also stressed “the solutions are there”.

We have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move very rapidly towards a carbon-neutral world to protect the nature we are a part of and keep the planet liveable for future generations.

The bold judgement by Germany’s Constitutional Court points the way forward. If governments do not act, there is always the legal option to ensure the right of coming generations to a sound environment and a climate that does not cross the temperature thresholds which would jeopardize life on the planet.

Time is running short. But we still have a choice. The future of the Arctic – and the rest of the world – will be what we make it.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Glacier mass decreasing across Arctic but at different rates, says study, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland ice cores reveal historic climate clues, says study, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Climate change hits back at Svalbard, coal mine flooded by melting glacier in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Retreating ice reveals new land in Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Glacier in central Sweden “collapsing” as climate warms, Radio Sweden

United States: Climate change a threat to bases across the U.S., Defense Dept. says, Alaska Public Media

Irene Quaile

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile has been specialising on the Arctic since 2007, when she made her first visit to Svalbard as part of an international media project for the International Polar Year and found herself “hooked” on the icy north. As environment and climate change correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster until November 2019, she has travelled to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people, and on the inter-links between the Arctic and the global climate. Irene has received several international awards, including environment gold awards from the New York International Radio Festivals and the United Nations. During a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008, she created The Ice Blog. Read Irene Quaile's articles

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