For most, Switzerland is known for its neutrality, beautiful landscapes, and luxury watchmakers. However, on April 9, 2024, the Swiss made headlines for something entirely different. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against Switzerland in a climate-related case, marking a historic precedent in how the world views climate change.

To understand the importance of the ruling, one has to know the role and jurisdiction of the ECHR. Established in 1959, it is an international judicial body of the Council of Europe that reviews cases involving alleged civil and political rights breaches, as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights. It has operated as a full-time court since 1998, accepting direct applications from individuals seeking redress for human rights violations.

The case against Switzerland was brought by a group of more than 2,000 Swiss women, known as “KlimaSeniorinnen” (Senior Women for Climate Protection). It argued that the Swiss government had failed to adequately combat the effects of climate change, thus endangering the lives of its citizens. The lawsuit was based on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees “the right to respect for private and family life.” The court ruled in favor of the citizens, recognizing the lack of sufficient effort from the government. The historic ruling has opened a window of opportunity for more public lawsuits against governments, pushing for better regulation of EU states’ environmental duties.

The 2024 ruling outlined -among others- the need for Switzerland to reassess its targets for reducing emissions by 2030, aligning them with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. It also found Switzerland to be in breach of its self-imposed goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and highlighted the absence of a national carbon budget. It is important to note that the ruling can’t be appealed and must be implemented immediately. This verdict will surely bring an avalanche of similar decisions, as climate change is very high on the priority list of problems of our times. Many other European countries are sure to be under fire for their environmental commitments and actions to fulfill them.

Switzerland is known by many as a pioneer of sustainability, and yet, in 2024, the Court found the government “guilty” of neglecting its environmental and human rights duties. While contradictory, this isn’t as surprising as one would think.  Switzerland is a major financial hub, processing various projects and investments through its banking system. Many are related to fossil fuels and carbon, making them very detrimental to climate sustainability but very profitable economically. Moreover, the Swiss decision-making process and the widespread use of referendums make it more challenging for reforms to be implemented.

Decisions made by the court, while legally binding, are ultimately up to each state to implement. While a fast reform seems unlikely, Switzerland seems eager to implement the decisions of the ruling.

The verdict poses a significant change in the way the world views climate- change and climate-related issues. By connecting human rights with governments’ responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions the ECHR sets a strong precedent for future rulings against states who fail to comply with the climate targets set by the EU. This is not only a win for the citizens but also for the general sustainability framework pushed under the new Agenda, with which Europe seeks to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

Climate change is an unprecedented danger to our planet. Its consequences are felt in every area, from ecosystems to communities and the economy. The urgency to mitigate this phenomenon makes it imperative for governments worldwide to implement effective measures. Common cooperation is needed, and a common guideline. Through verdicts such as that of the ECHR, the world can ensure stricter and more precise application of the necessary measures, as well as wider cooperation and public involvement. The ruling contributes to shaping global norms and expectations regarding government responsibility in addressing climate change. It gives citizens more power over their rights, and pressures governments to be more meticulous. While the immediate effects of the ruling are expected to be more pronounced in the European continent, we can assume that its implications have the potential to reverberate on a global scale.

Ultimately, one could argue that it was but one ruling, in one case, while others have been thrown out or rejected. Climate change indeed needs more than just one verdict, or one country changing its ways for it to be effectively mitigated. However, this verdict provides a very strong foothold for future change, especially regarding greenhouse gas emissions. It has helped in raising public awareness, beyond the confines of borders both regarding human rights and government regulation. It is only a matter of time before more cases are brought forward. The world is acutely aware of the devastating effects of environmental degradation. The verdict could easily be a stepping-stone for global changes, providing a precedent for better global climate governance and cooperation. Whatever the future effects may be, the verdict of April 9 has inevitably linked human rights and the protection of the environment, emphasizing the importance of effective action against climate change. It has also shown that citizens do and should have a say in all of this, promoting the values of democracy and representation.

Author: Έλλη Ματθαιάδη


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