Climate change court cases more than double in just five years

27th July 2023


Litigation is becoming a key tool for delivering climate justice and action, with the number of court cases more than doubling worldwide in just five years, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has found.

In a report, published today, the researchers reveal that climate change cases increased from 884 in 2017 to 2,180 in 2022, with most having taken place in the US.

However, climate litigation is taking root all over the world, with about 17% of cases now being reported in developing countries, including small island developing states.

Notable cases have challenged government decisions based on a project’s inconsistency with the goals of the Paris Agreement or a country’s net-zero commitments, while fossil fuel companies are also being increasingly targeted.

Furthermore, the report shows that groups underrepresented in positions of power are having their voices heard, with 34 cases having been brought forward by and on behalf of children and people aged under 25.

“Climate policies are far behind what is needed to keep global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold, with extreme weather events and searing heat already baking our planet,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

“People are increasingly turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice.”

As climate litigation increases in frequency and volume, the body of legal precedent grows, forming an increasingly well-defined field of law.

According to the report, most ongoing climate litigation falls into one or more of six categories:

1) Cases relying on human rights enshrined in international law and national constitutions

2) Challenges to domestic non-enforcement of climate-related laws and policies

3) Litigants seeking to keep fossil fuels in the ground

4) Advocates for greater climate disclosures and an end to greenwashing

5) Claims addressing corporate liability and responsibility for climate harms

6) Claims addressing failures to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

In the future, the report predicts a rise in the number of cases dealing with climate migration, cases brought by Indigenous peoples, local communities and other groups disproportionately affected by climate change, as well as cases addressing liability following extreme weather events.

It also anticipates challenges in applying the science of climate attribution, and a rise in ‘backlash’ cases against litigants which aim to dismantle regulations that promote climate action.

“There is a distressingly growing gap between the level of greenhouse gas reductions the world needs to achieve in order to meet its temperature targets, and the actions that governments are actually taking to lower emissions,” said Michael Gerrard, faculty director at the Sabin Center, which co-produced the report. “This inevitably will lead more people to resort to the courts.

“This report will be an invaluable resource for everyone who wants to achieve the best possible outcome in judicial forums, and to understand what is and is not possible there.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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