European Court Ruling that Swiss Climate Policies Violate Human Rights Sets a Global Precedent
Supporters of the Swiss Climate Seniors Association “KlimaSenirorinnen” outside the European Court in Strasbourg, which ruled Tuesday that Switzerland’s climate policies were putting older women’s lives at risk.

A European Court ruling Tuesday that Switzerland was violating human rights by not acting fast enough on climate change has been hailed by legal experts as a global precedent – and by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as an important recognition of the links between climate change and health.

In a case brought by the Swiss-based association of “Senior Women for Climate Protection” the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Swiss government inaction was putting their health at risk due to “critical gaps” in carbon reduction policies.

The women, aged 64 and over, had argued that more extreme heat episodes, driven by climate change, undermined their health and quality of life, and put them at a greater risk of dying.  A growing body of scientific evidence has documented the links between exposure to extreme heat and premature mortality -with heat relaed deaths of people over age 65 increasing by 85% since 1990, according to a Lancet Countdown study, published in November, 2023.

The average person now experiences 86 days of “health-threatening high temperatures every year”, 60% of which are attributable to climate change, Lancet found in a global report by an international consortium of 114 scientists. Pardoxically, while the European Court ruling recognized the risks borne by older women in Alpine Switzerland, the overwhelming burden of those heat-related health risks is born by older people in low-income countries.

Lancet Countdown: Average annual hours per person from 1991 to 2022 when light physical activity entailed at least a moderate, high, or extreme heat stress risk, arranged by HDI=Human Development Index groupings.

A European and global precedent

Today’s ruling against Switzerland sets a historic precedent that applies to all European countries,” said Gerry Listen, attorney at the Global Legal Action Network. The Network had represented a group of Portuguese children in a similar climate-related case before the European Court, which was ruled inadmissable for procedural and technical reasons.

Listen said that the favorable ruling on the Swiss case, nonetheless, means that “all of the government lawyers who represented the 32 respondent states in our case are now going to have to advise their governments, the governments that they represented, that they are going to have to look at their targets again and update them.

“Because none of the governments in Europe in cases that were before the court today have targets that are anywhere near 1.5 C.  Most targets are aligned between 3-4 C within the lifetime of the young people before the court today,” he added in an interview on CNN Television.  “So absolutely catastrophic levels of warming. So this precedent will require European wide revision of climate policies urgently. Otherwise, or anyways we are going to see a new wave of climate litigation at the European level sparked by this ruling from Strasbourg today.

The court ruling is particularly significant because it is legally binding for Switzerland, and potentially for other European countries as well. However, litigation on climate issues has become increasingly common around the world. Both the International Court of Justice and the Inter American Court of Human Rights have cases pending which relate to the human rights impacts of climate change.

As a result, the ruling will have impacts far beyond the European region, Joanne Setzer, Associate Professor at the UK-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told the a English-language media channel,

“The landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights not only sets a precedent in environmental and climate law but also signals a momentous shift in the global legal landscape concerning climate change,” she said.

Only recently, India’s Supreme Court also recognized that the adverse effects of climate change violated people’s fundamental constitutional rights. There have also been a flurry of new reports and evidence suggesting that climate change disproportionately affects women and their health.

In the ECHR ruling, Siofra O’Leary, president of the ECHR found numerous “critical gaps” in the Swiss regulatory frameworks that are supposed to reduce climate change. The court also criticized the lack of an effective Swiss monitoring system to determine levels of emissions that could indeed be permissible, while limiting warming to 1.5 °C in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Eight year battle

Despite it’s “clean and green” reputation, Switzerland ranks among the “laggards” in economic incentives for zero emissions vehicles, according to a 2022 study.

The Swiss senior’s association launched its legal case in 2016, charging the Swiss authorites for pursuing ineffective climate policies, which therefore threatened their health and right to life. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court rejected their request that the state adopt more ambitious targets for reducing climate emissions. Then in 2020, the Association appealed to the ECHR, anchoring its case in the violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, including clauses related to the right to life.

The ECHR’s binding judgment means that Switzerland must take action to comply with the order – enacting new legislation to bring Swiss emissions reductions in line with the global goals of keeping temperature increase below 1.5 °C.

Despite it’s global reputation as a clean and environmentally conscious nation, including solar panels on many rooftops and an efficient rail and cycle network, there has in fact been considerable pushback by Swiss center and center-right parties against more aggressive climate action – popularly perceived as adding to economic costs and undermining personal autonomy.

Only one in 50 vehicles are fully electric, and Switzerland is one of the “laggards” in the tax incentivization of private, zero-emissions vehicles, according to a 2022 study by the NGO Transport & Environment. Even so, Switzerland now plans to end tax exemptions for EVs in 2024.

Image Credits: @GLAN_LAW, 2023 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change , Transport&Environment.

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