The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Swiss government had failed to meet its own targets for cutting emissions.

Europe’s top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that the Swiss government had violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to do enough to combat climate change, in a decision that will set a precedent for future climate lawsuits.

The European Court of Human Rights’s ruling, in favour of the more than 2,000 Swiss women who brought the case, is expected to resonate in court decisions across Europe and beyond, and to embolden more communities to bring climate cases against governments.

The Swiss women, known as Klima Seniorinnen and aged over 64, said their government’s climate inaction put them at risk of dying during heatwaves. They argued their age and gender made them particularly vulnerable to such climate change impacts. They blame the Swiss authorities for various climate change failings. The association says this amounts to a violation of the government’s mandate to protect life and citizens’ homes and families.

Marie-Eve Volkoff, 85, is suing the government alongside the association with a membership of around 2,000 other elderly women for what she calls “climate lockdown.” Switzerland experienced   heat waves in 2022, compelling Volkoff to stay indoors for 11 weeks with just short outings. Referring to the situation as a “climate lockdown” in which her activities are limited by conditions outside, she described the situation as worse than the COVID-19 pandemic and a violation of her human rights.

In her ruling, Court President Siofra O’Leary said the Swiss government had failed to comply with its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to set a national carbon budget. “It is clear that future generations are likely to bear an increasingly severe burden of the consequences of present failures and omissions to combat climate change,” O’Leary said.

One of Klima Seniorinnen’s leaders, Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti said she was struggling to grasp the full extent of the decision. “We keep asking our lawyers, ‘Is that right?’. And they tell us ‘it’s the most you could have had. The biggest victory possible’.”

The Swiss Federal Office of Justice, which represented the Swiss government at the court, took note of the ruling. “Together with the authorities concerned, we will now analyse the extensive judgment and review what measures Switzerland will take in the future,” it said in a statement.

Climate litigation on the rise

The cases before the 17-judge panel in Strasbourg, France, are among the increasing number of climate lawsuits brought by citizens against governments that hinge on human rights law.

The verdict in the Swiss case, which cannot be appealed, will have international ripple effects, most directly by establishing a binding legal precedent for all 46 countries that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. It indicates Switzerland has a legal duty to take greater action on reducing emissions.

If Switzerland does not update its policies, further litigation could follow at the national level and courts could issue financial penalties, Lucy Maxwell, co-director of the non-profit Climate Litigation Network, said.

Switzerland has committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, from 1990 levels. Bern had proposed stronger measures to deliver the goal, but voters rebuffed them in a 2021 referendum as too burdensome.

The verdict could also influence future rulings at the Strasbourg court, which had put six other climate cases on hold pending Tuesday’s decisions. These include a lawsuit against the Norwegian government that alleges it violated human rights by issuing new licences for oil and gas exploration in the Barents Sea beyond 2035.

“(It) sets a crucial legally binding precedent serving as a blueprint for how to successfully sue your own government over climate failures,” Ruth Delbaere, legal campaigns director at global civic movement Avaaz, said of the Swiss case’s outcome.

Courts in Australia, Brazil, Peru and South Korea are considering human rights-based climate cases. India’s supreme court held in a ruling last month that citizens have the right to be free from the adverse impacts of climate change.

In the case brought by the Portuguese youngsters, the court ruled that while a state’s greenhouse gas emissions may have an adverse impact on people living outside its borders, it did not justify prosecuting a case across multiple jurisdictions. It also noted that the young people had not exhausted legal avenues within Portugal’s national courts before coming to the ECtHR. “I really hoped that we would win against all the countries,” Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese teens, said in a statement. “But the most important thing is that the Court has said in the Swiss women’s case that governments must cut their emissions more to protect human rights. So, their win is a win for us too and a win for everyone.”

Damien Careme, a former mayor in northern France has also presented a case against France in the ECHR. He said the central government failed to meet its obligation to protect citizens’ lives by not taking sufficient steps to prevent climate change. At the French judiciary, Careme filed a case on behalf of his town and his own when he was mayor. He argued that climate change was  raising the risk of his home being flooded. Although the highest administrative court found in favor of the town against the central government, the individual case was thrown out. Prompting Careme to take it to the ECHR.

High stakes trials

According to Corinne Lepage, a former French ecology minister and one of Careme’s lawyers, “the stakes are extremely high.”

“If the European court recognizes that climate failings violate the rights of individuals to life and a normal family life, then that becomes precedent in all of the council’s member states and potentially in the whole world,” she said.

The ECHR is an international court whose members comprise the 46 states of the Council of Europe. Strasbourg has fast-tracked the hearing, meaning judges are set to decide within a year instead of the usual three.

Climate change case at European Court of Human Rights first of its kind