Germany's highest court has sided with young activists in a landmark climate case, ruling on Thursday that some aspects of the country's climate protection legislation are unconstitutional because they place too much of a burden for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on younger generations.
The Constitutional Court is giving the government until the end of next year to set clearer targets for reducing greenhouse emissions starting in 2031, calling the current provisions "incompatible with fundamental rights" because they lack specificity and "irreversibly offload major emission reduction burdens" onto the next decade and beyond.
"These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030," the court said in a statement. "Therefore, the legislator should have taken precautionary steps to mitigate these major burdens in order to safeguard the freedom guaranteed by fundamental rights."
The case was brought by nine climate activists — "some of whom are still very young," as the court noted — with the backing of environmental organizations, all of whom are celebrating the verdict as a historic win.
At issue is Germany's 2019 Climate Change Act, which requires the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% — relative to 1990 levels — by 2030. It sets upper limits for emissions in various sectors in that period but does not provide specific targets in line with its longer-term goal of reaching greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.
The plaintiffs filed four complaints arguing, in part, that by not setting specific-enough targets for the following years, the act violated their fundamental right to a humane future. The court agreed.
"The statutory provisions on adjusting the reduction pathway for greenhouse gas emissions from 2031 onwards are not sufficient to ensure that the necessary transition to climate neutrality is achieved in time," it said.
The court did, however, reject some of the plaintiffs' other arguments, saying for example it could not prove that the government had violated its constitutional duty to protect them from the risks of climate change.
The judges also addressed the balance of freedoms and burdens in the country's effort to fight climate change. At some point in the future, they said, "even serious losses of freedom may be deemed proportionate and justified under constitutional law in order to prevent climate change."
"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," they wrote.
Germany's government has until the end of December 2022 to enact legislation specifying clearer reduction targets for the period after 2030.
Officials reacted swiftly to the decision Thursday. Peter Altmaier, the minister for energy and economic affairs, described it as "big and significant," according to The Guardian, while Annalena Baerbock — the Green party's candidate for chancellor — called it historic.
Olaf Scholz, the finance minister, said he would begin work immediately on the amendments, in partnership with the environment ministry. And Svenja Schulze, the minister for the environment, wrote in a series of tweets that she will present new climate proposals this summer.
Those involved in the case are celebrating the court's ruling and the mandate it has established as a result, according to a joint release from several environmental organizations.
Roda Verheyen, a lawyer representing the young activists, praised the judges for recognizing the urgency of the climate crisis and interpreting climate protection as a human right.
One of the complainants, Sophie Backsen, has said her family members are already experiencing the consequences of climate change on their home island of Pellworm, where rising sea levels threaten their farm and their community. She celebrated the verdict as a success for young people already affected by climate change and said it is motivating her to keep fighting.
Action must be taken to protect the climate now, not in 10 years, she said.
Those remarks were echoed by Luisa Neubauer, a fellow plaintiff and one of Germany's most prominent climate activists, who described climate change as not "nice to have" but rather a basic right.
"Young people's 'fundamental rights to a human future' are threatened by climate inaction, according to today's court ruling," she wrote in a tweet. "This can change so much, not just for us here in Germany but for activists worldwide."
Activists in other countries have attempted to fight climate change through the legal system, but few have been victorious.
In a groundbreaking 2015 case, an environmental advocacy group in the Netherlands filed a class-action lawsuit arguing the government was failing to protect its citizens and asked a judge to order officials to cut carbon emissions. The case worked its way up to the Dutch Supreme Court, which ruled in 2019 that the government must cut emissions at least 25% from 1990 levels by the following year. And in February, a Paris court ruled that France did not take enough action to fight climate change, siding with four nongovernmental organizations and holding the French state responsible for failing to meet its goals of reducing greenhouse gases.
A long-running legal effort to make such a case in the U.S. has so far been unsuccessful.
The lawsuit, referred to as the "kids' climate case," was filed in 2015 on behalf of a group of children and teenagers, and alleges that the U.S. government has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by continuing to use and promote fossil fuels while knowing they destabilize the climate and endanger future generations.
It's moved through the federal courts in the years since then. A federal appeals court declined to hear the case again in February, and the plaintiffs' attorneys have vowed to take it to the Supreme Court.