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Breakthrough Climate Edicts: Supreme Courts of India & Switzerland Lead the Way

Two recent declarations from two parts of the globe push environmental justice into the spotlight amid growing legal recognition of climate change’s impact on fundamental rights and much-needed environmental protection
12:00 AM Apr 14, 2024 IST | SURINDER SINGH OBEROI
breakthrough climate edicts  supreme courts of india   switzerland lead the way
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Mark your calendars for Sustainability Week, running from April 15th to 19th. It is not just another event—it is a call to action for a better future. Sustainability is not just a buzzword; it is the key to our survival on this planet. This week, the UN is diving deep into critical topics like debt sustainability, socioeconomic equality, tourism, transport, global resilience, infrastructure development, and sustainable energy.

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But it is not just about talking the talk. Sustainability Week is a reminder that each of us has a role to play in shaping a sustainable future. It is not just about saving the environment; it is about driving economic development and ensuring social equity for all.

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Dennis Francis, President of the UN General Assembly, points out that there’s no conflict between economic success and sustainability—it’s a matter of commitment and vision. And the world is taking notice.

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Last week, the Supreme Court of India made a declaration, affirming the fundamental right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change. It is a giant leap towards recognizing environmental rights as essential components of human well-being. The Indian judiciary’s emphasis on upholding international obligations for sustainable development sends a powerful message: it is time to prioritize policies and practices that protect our planet and build resilience for generations to come.

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In another ruling, across the globe, in Switzerland, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dropped a bombshell, holding governments accountable for inadequate climate action. By calling out Switzerland for failing to safeguard its citizens’ human rights in the face of climate change, the ECHR is setting the stage for a new era of legal battles aimed at securing stronger climate protections worldwide.

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The decisions by the Supreme Court of India and the European Court of Human Rights mark significant milestones in the legal recognition of climate change as a fundamental issue affecting human rights and the environment,

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In Switzerland, the Court ruling established a precedent for holding governments accountable for failing to address climate change adequately. By finding Switzerland in violation of its citizens’ human rights due to insufficient action on climate change, the ECHR sets the stage for future legal actions and debate, compelling governments worldwide to implement stronger climate protections.

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The case, brought forth by more than 2,000 Swiss women aged 64 and older, argued that Switzerland’s failure to address climate change exposed them to heightened risks, particularly during heat waves. Last month marked the world’s hottest March on record, with alarming statistics revealing a disproportionate impact on older adults, especially women. The court’s ruling holds Switzerland accountable for violating the women’s rights to protection from the adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, and well-being.

Court President Siofra O’Leary emphasized the urgent need for action, stating, “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.” The verdict, which cannot be appealed, highlights the pressing nature of climate-related challenges.

Switzerland had committed to significant emission reductions by 2030 and achieving net zero by 2050, but its actions did not align with these targets.

In response to the ruling, Switzerland pledged to review the judgment and assess future measures to address climate change. The court ordered Switzerland to compensate the plaintiffs, members of a group called KlimaSeniorinnen, for their expenses and indicated that further penalties could follow if Switzerland fails to update its policies accordingly.

This decision sets a binding legal precedent for the 46 countries under the European Convention on Human Rights. It also has implications for other pending climate-related cases, including a lawsuit against Norway alleging similar violations.

Similarly, in India, the Supreme Court’s declaration last week affirming the fundamental right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change signifies a step towards recognizing environmental rights as integral to human well-being.

By emphasizing the importance of upholding international obligations for sustainable development, the Indian judiciary emphasizes the imperative of adopting policies and practices that prioritize environmental protection and resilience.

In a ruling, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud, alongside Justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, highlighted the absence of comprehensive legislation directly addressing climate change in India.

The court affirmed that the absence of such legislation does not negate the people’s right to be protected from the adverse effects of climate change. The court underscored the constitutional recognition of the importance of the natural world and analysed the right to a clean environment in conjunction with the right to be safeguarded from climate change impacts.

The court emphasized that the rights to equality and life must be interpreted considering the state’s actions and commitments at the national and international levels, as well as the scientific consensus on climate change. It concluded that individuals possess a right to be shielded from the adverse consequences of climate change, and courts must consider various constitutional rights, including the right against displacement, when adjudicating cases related to climate change impacts.

Furthermore, the court stressed India’s obligation under international law to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and protect citizens’ fundamental rights to a healthy environment. It recognized the challenges faced by India in balancing economic development with environmental conservation and emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to sustainable development.

In a related matter concerning the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the court modified its earlier blanket ban on the installation of over-the-ground power lines in GIB habitats. The court acknowledged the feasibility issues and potential environmental risks associated with underground power transmission cables.

Consequently, it formed an expert committee comprising eminent individuals from relevant fields to frame modalities for preserving the GIB while considering the need for power transmission infrastructure. The court directed the committee to submit its report by July 31, 2024.

India stands committed to reducing the emissions caused by activities for the nation’s economic growth by 45% by the year 2030 from 2005 levels, according to the new targets. The nation will also aim to achieve about 50% of its energy requirements from non-fossil fuel-based energy sources by the year 2030. The court’s rulings set a precedent for proactive climate action and environmental stewardship.

To achieve this goal, several key steps are essential:

Strengthening Legal Frameworks: Governments must enact and enforce laws and regulations that promote climate resilience, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and protect vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

Enhancing International Cooperation: Global collaboration is essential in addressing the transboundary nature of climate change. Countries must work together to fulfil their commitments under international agreements such as the Paris Agreement, and COP28 agreement and collaborate on initiatives to promote renewable energy, sustainable land use, and climate adaptation.

Empowering Vulnerable Communities: Efforts to combat climate change must prioritize the needs and rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations, including indigenous communities, low-income groups, and frontline communities disproportionately affected by environmental degradation. Empowering these communities through inclusive decision-making processes and access to resources is essential for building climate resilience and promoting social justice.

Promoting Sustainable Development: Transitioning to a low-carbon, sustainable economy is crucial for mitigating climate change and fostering long-term environmental and economic stability. Governments, businesses, and civil society organizations need to be roped in to get better results and social equity.

The two recent legal decisions by the Supreme Court of India and the European Court of Human Rights are rallying alertness for action towards a brighter tomorrow. These rulings provide a blueprint for advancing climate justice and ensuring a sustainable future for all.

We all need to play a part in addressing climate change and protecting humanity and the ecosystem or progeny will never pardon the present generation.

Author is National Editor, Greater Kashmir.

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