The first climate lawsuit against Russia may have huge implications across the world
4 min read
Russia, the climate crisis, and the energy transition have been a constant presence in the European press for weeks now.
But these issues made headlines recently for a different reason: a group of Russian climate activists and NGOs filed a constitutional climate case challenging Russia’s climate strategy, on the basis that it is insufficiently ambitious to protect their human rights.
Where framework cases have been successful, they have had major direct and indirect impacts on developments in climate policy
This case is the first in Russia, one of the world’s top ten global emitters. But it is also part of an important pattern in global climate litigation. More than 70 per cent of climate cases around the world are filed against governments, some seek to advance and others seek to delay climate action. Early examples of such litigation typically included planning and permitting challenges, looking at whether government officials have considered the climate impact of a particular project or policy when approving or denying it. But in the years immediately before the Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015, a new type of climate case against governments started to emerge.
These new cases sought to apply broad legal principles – typically derived from constitutional and human rights law – to the issue of climate change, focusing on a government’s overall response to climate change and whether it could reasonably be seen to correspond to the increasingly urgent warnings of the scientific community. Following the early success of cases in the Netherlands, Pakistan, and the United States, the strategy of challenging the overall framework of a government’s climate response spread rapidly to new jurisdictions.
Now, more than 80 such cases – which we refer to as government framework cases in a new report published in early September – have been documented globally, with 56 cases against national governments and 24 cases against sub-national governments filed before courts in at least 24 countries.
So far, the direct outcomes of these cases have been mixed: out of nearly 50 cases that have so far received a judgment, around 30 have been dismissed – at least initially. More than half of these unsuccessful cases have been cases filed against sub-national governments, predominantly in the US and Germany. However, of the nine cases that have been heard by a country’s highest court, seven have had positive outcomes for the climate.
Where framework cases have been successful, they have had major direct and indirect impacts on developments in climate policy. Policies that determine a move towards a greener economy, in turn, might increase the transition risk and create associated costs for private companies. This can be seen in both Germany and the Netherlands, which have had rapid changes to legislation and policy following favourable judgments from the countries’ highest courts. In the Netherlands, for example, government ministers have made a direct and explicit connection between a cap on production at coal-fired power stations and the need to implement their supreme court judgment issued in the case of Urgenda Foundation v State of the Netherlands in 2019.
As the climate crisis becomes ever more severe and the approach of climate litigants becomes ever more creative, it seems likely that future cases will continue to make headway, meaning that further rapid shifts may be just around the corner. Surveying the successes – and failures – from other jurisdictions, one thing is clear: government framework cases present a clear pathways for citizens and civil society to force recalcitrant governments to the table on climate issues.
Against a backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine and fears that Russia may be losing its clout in international circles, the brave litigants in the new Russian case are certainly trying to do just that. How the government in Moscow responds may have huge implications in Russia and beyond.
Catherine Higham, policy analyst and coordinator of the Climate Change Laws of the World project at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
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