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Dutch government appeals against court ruling over emissions cuts

Marjan Minnesma, director of the environmental group Urgenda, arrives at court in The Hague prior to the appeal from the Dutch government. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

The Dutch government has launched a bid to overturn a landmark climate ruling, arguing that judges in The Hague “sidelined democracy” when they ordered a 25% cut in carbon emissions by 2020.

Government plans for a lesser 17% cut in CO2 pollution were deemed unlawful three years ago, in the first successful lawsuit against a government’s climate policy.

The case inspired a wave of climate lawsuits against governments in Belgium, Colombia, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, the UK, Uganda and the US.

But Mark Rutte’s government on Monday put the ball back in the plaintiffs’ court, arguing that judges in The Hague had overstepped their authority and were in danger of outflanking public opinion.

Climate minister Eric Wiebes told Dutch media: “We also believe that renewable energy should be increased and CO2 emissions should be reduced, so this is really about something else: it’s about how the judge has intervened in something that’s [called] democracy, and actually democracy has been sidelined.”

After the original ruling, the Dutch government announced ambitious plans to phase out all coal plants and cut emissions by 49% by 2030, as measured against 1990 levels.

But the plans have not yet been implemented and Urgenda, the citizens’ alliance that brought the original case, said Dutch greenhouse gas emissions were currently only 13% below 1990 levels while CO2 output was largely unchanged.

Lawyers representing the group’s 886 Dutch plaintiffs told the court: “The Netherlands is 34th in the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. But when it comes to per capita emissions the Netherlands ranks ninth – the highest of any EU country. A Dutch person emits twice as much as the global average and 1.5 times more than the average EU citizen.

“If we are not to reduce our emissions as quickly as possible, who is?”

With Urgenda’s legal battle becoming a litmus test for the effectiveness of climate litigation, the judges’ verdict – expected on 9 October – will be closely watched.

Christiana Figueres, the former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said: “Urgenda’s bold action against the government of the Netherlands created an important new incentive for all governments to act expeditiously.

“Governments must act boldly and urgently. The Urgenda climate case is evidence that this is not just what should be done, it’s what must be done.”

The World Meteorological Organization reported that last month was the third warmest April on record after 2016 and 2017, while Bering Sea ice cover fell to lowest level ever and a new CO2 ppm (parts per million) record was set.

In a sign of increased urgency in Brussels, the EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, called this month for member states “to accelerate our efforts considerably and raise our ambition”.

A UN dialogue to begin the process of “ratcheting up” climate pledges made at the Paris climate conference is under way, and seven EU states have called for the bloc to raise its ambitions.

The Netherlands was one of them, and Wiebes reportedly proposed a 55% cut in Europe’s planet-warming emissions by 2030, describing the Dutch government as “one of the frontrunners on climate policy”.

Domestically though, frustration with the slow pace of climate mitigation helped the Dutch Green party to more than triple its count of MPs in elections last year.

Jesse Klaver, the Greens’ leader, told the Guardian: “The main reason for that is that citizens are fed up with a government that chooses the interests of fossil companies over the environment.

“The Urgenda case made it possible to call the government to account. The tragedy of Dutch climate policy is that our governments always had goals, but were never able to fulfil them. The verdict showed that when they fail to act on climate change a court can tell a government: you have a responsibility to protect your people and to keep your commitments.”

Climate actions have often been hostage to the changing composition of national governments, and the Dutch parliament is currently working on a climate change bill to ensure policy continuity.

Anne van Pinxteren, a government spokeswoman, said that while Rutte’s administration expected to cut emissions by between 19-27% by 2020, the court judges had “set a major legal precedent” in altering its plans.

“There is a chance that with current policy the emission reduction goal of the court will not be met,” she said. “If that is the case, the state will have to take additional measures which will need to have an effect in the very short term. These will most likely not be cost-effective and/or have big consequences on society.”

Environmentalists, though, counter that the cost of the toughest climate action now pales by comparison to the estimated $30tn of damages that not meeting it could bring.

Marjan Minnesma, Urgenda co-founder and director, told the Guardian: “Today in court we showed that it would cost around 0.5% of our GDP to meet the climate measures that have been proposed. If it is necessary and we are an extremely rich country and we can avoid extremely high risks, we think it should be done.”

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