The new trend: Climate Change Litigation

In the last five years, a new trend in fighting for action and attention for climate change has emerged. Multiple NGOs, climate organisations and groups of citizens have sued governments and international organisations, such as the European Union, for their part in polluting the earth. In this blogpost, I will discuss the history and strategy of climate change litigation and its prospects.

Climate of litigation? Why climate science will disrupt public and ...

Urgenda & the history of climate litigation

In 2015 the first-ever lawsuit against any government about reducing greenhouse gas emissions was won by Urgenda. In the now famous Urgenda case, the Dutch government was sued for neglecting the promises made in the Paris Agreement.  Despite two attempts by the Dutch government to overrule the initial verdict, The Supreme Court decided in December 2019 that the Dutch government must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with 25% this year, 2020, compared to 1990.

The verdict in the urgenda case.

Following the Urgenda case, similar cases were started by citizens in several other countries. In the following countries groups of citizens have already sued their government for their lack of effective climate policy:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Colombia
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • New Zealand
  • Pakistan
  • South-Korea
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Some of the cases are still ongoing, while others already saw the final verdict. Unfortunately, not all of these lawsuits were successful. Nevertheless, the fact that in multiple cases the plaintiffs won against their own government in cases regarding insufficient climate policy shows that such lawsuits have great potential.

Another recent example of climate litigation in The Netherlands is the new nitrogen policy. In 2019, the policy regarding nitrogen (PAS) was rejected by the Council of State after a lawsuit from multiple citizens. The old policy allowed extra nitrogen emissions if it would be compensated in the future. Now, after the lawsuit, no new nitrogen emissions are allowed, unless compensated with direct reduction of other nitrogen emission sources.

The Oslo Principles

In 2015, around the time of the Urgenda case, a group of international law professors, High Court judges, and jurists published the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. The Oslo Principles are basically a guideline for other jurists to show that governments have an obligation to protect their people from negative effects of climate change, even if the government did not make promises in the Paris Agreement.  The Oslo Principles mainly rely on human rights and environmental laws to argue why governments are legally obliged to prevent harmful effects of global warming to affect their citizens. The Oslo Principles are an indication that such lawsuits have at least a decent chance of success, as important international jurists are legally making a case for the inaction of governments on climate policy.

Oslo Principles on Global Climate Obligations (Engels) door Expert ...

Polluting Companies

Not only governments are being sued for harmful climate change effects. Citizens, but also different Counties and States in the United States have sued polluting NGOs for part of climate change. There are currently cases against Shell, ExxonMobil, RWE, and many more big emitters, to hold them partly responsible for current harmful climate change effects. If these cases are successful, it is highly likely that many more will follow. This could have two possible positive effects:

  1. The NGOs will be overloaded with claims, leaving them no choice but to reduce their emissions and look for alternatives to prevent more claims in the future.
  2. The NGOs will be legally obliged to reduce their emissions by either making a deal with the plaintiffs or by the verdict of the judge.

Prospects

Even though climate change litigation is relatively new and the actual impact it has made, globally, is still rather small, I see it as one of the major ways in the future to fight climate change and actually make an impact. The success in the Urgenda case (and other similar cases) in addition to The Oslo Principles will not only give a good legal basis for new cases, but also encourage new lawsuits since it has proven to be successful in the past. Furthermore, there are multiple groups to target. Both governments and NGOs can be sued for their inaction in climate change mitigation and past greenhouse gas emissions. And thus, both governments and NGOs will have to act in climate mitigation and adaptation.

The main reason why I see it as a very important means for action, is that the governments and NGOs will be legally obliged to meet the verdict. Without climate change litigation, governments tend to make climate change policy for the next decades, while doing little to nothing now. Climate change litigation is perfect to ensure that those governments and NGOs actually start reducing their emissions now instead of making vague plans for the future.

Hopefully, we will soon see a boost in climate change mitigation caused by climate change litigation.

Peatlands – the Earth’s under-appreciated carbon storage

What is it?

So, peatlands. What’s so special about peatlands? Well, there’s a lot to know about peatlands and their role in our Earth systems. Peatlands are one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. They play an incredibly imporant role in climatic and ecosystems and can be found in almost all countries in the world, as can be seen on the following map.

Distribution of peatlands in the world.

A book by Rydin and Jeglum covers everything you would need to know about peatlands. Some of the basics of peatlands: they are a type of wetland defined by an accumulation of organic matter suspended in its decomposition due to lack of oxygen and waterlogged conditions, they house a multitude of insects, animals, and microorganisms, and they can provide material – peat – which can be harvested and used as fuel or for horticulture. What to gather from that information? They are an essential carbon storage, important ecosystems for biodiversity, and often transformed and exploited for human use. They are a type of wetland which is often overexploited, drained, converted for agriculture, burned, harvested for horticulture and used for fuel, with 15% of peatlands already having been drained. While this issue has been known for a long time, this fact is not apparent in current policies.

How does this relate to climate change?

As established above, peatlands are incredibly important ecosystems mainly due to their carbon storage capacities and biodiversity. As shown in the following graph from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), draining these important ecosystems releases greenhouse gases, decreases biodiversity, leads to land degradation and more environmental issues, as peatlands play an essential role in the global climate and local ecosystems.

Peatlands may store ~644 Gt of Carbon or 21% of the global total soil organic Carbon stock of ~3000 Gt. So, draining of these areas will allow decomposition and through that, the emission of CO2 and N2O.

Research has also shown peatland’s climate change mitigation potential, the importance of their rich biodiversity (both in soil and aboveground), their role in regulating the water cycle, and their protection from water erosion (in the case of grasslands and wood- pastures). These essential roles of peatlands show why it is so important to protect these ecosystems.

Rewetting peatlands is also a method that can be used to regain some of these benefits and can solve the issues occurring from draining them, like emissions, higher flooding risks and eventual loss of productive land. This doesn’t have to mean a loss of agricultural land, as paludiculture (agriculture in wetlands) can serve as a low-emission land use alternative.

Rewetting might not be as straight-forward as it sounds though, as according to an assessment of two rewetted peatlands it “may be a balancing act between biodiversity or climate benefits”. So, while rewetting is an important tool, can bring back peatland benefits and is probably necessary in drained areas, the protection of existing peatlands is just as, if not more important.

Why is a paradigm shift necessary?

Currently, many peatlands are drained or exploited, as this is how humans see value in them. This is because of long-standing habits and traditions, but also because of governmental incentives. Focusing on the European Union (EU), awareness and some steps have been taken, but the necessary changes they are supposedly aware of are not reflected in direct policy action.

Research for the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament shows recommendations of the protection of peatlands and demonstrates that the EU is aware of the issue, listing the reasons the protection of peatlands is vital and stating paludiculture as an alternative, when done right.

In 2018, the European Commission agreed on key legislation that would account for emissions from land use, land use change and forestry. This still does not show protection of peatlands, but rather a very indirect measure taken to try to limit emissions from the above mentioned factor in general.

A publication from the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz) brings to light some of the issues in the current paradigm, which are not reflective of the awareness that should be present. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) principles and payments support high emission drainage-based agriculture, through high subsidies. Yet, climate-smart rewetting and paludiculture loose CAP payments.

Energy fuels from paludiculture could be a more sustainable form of biofuels derived from rewetted peatlands. These also have extremely limited economic support. This alternative could replace biomass which is grown on peatlands unsustainably for renewable energy.

So, although the EU seems to have received relevant recommendations, gained awareness and taken very indirect steps, larger-scale protection of peatlands and support of paludiculture are necessary to protect these essential ecosystems.

Some upcoming peatland movements

If you want to get involved in making this change or doing your part, there are several movements and campaigns that are involved in advocating for this peatland paradigm shift. RE-PEAT is a relatively new movement (with some AUC students involved) encouraging a paradigm shift through story-telling, connecting and encouraging dialogue and through political advocacy. Friends of the Earth has fought to protect peatlands since 1996. And PeatFree April and For Peat’s Sake are campaigns that are fighting for the removal of peat from horticulture.

Double Trouble: Corona & Climate, how do they relate?

Double Trouble?

How Corona leads to climate debate postponement, changes in our mentalities and circular economies.

This and more is discussed in the podcast with Tomas ter Reehorst and Mathilde Wuite on how the current crisis affects another.

Tune in, comment and stay safe!

Link to Doughnut economy article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/amsterdam-doughnut-model-mend-post-coronavirus-economy?fbclid=IwAR1l6GNVbMZzXdf0PKyFBOfjBz00W4dCOzalJXO6D1s0YF6cq9yjmnHejqE

Link to documentary:
https://www.vpro.nl/programmas/tegenlicht/lees/artikelen/2020/amsterdam-donutstad-interview.html

Music:

“That’s Life” (Copyright). 1966. Written by: Dean Kay, Kelly Gordon. Vocals by: Frank Sinatra. Produced by: Jimmy Bowen. Label: Reprise.

References:

Ambrose, J. & Harvey, F. (2020, April 1). Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow postponed until 2021. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/01/uk-likely-to-postpone-cop26-un-climate-talks-glasgow-coronavirus

Bijlo, E. (2020, April 6). De economie groen stimuleren, kunnen we het daar al over hebben?. Trouw. https://www.trouw.nl/duurzaamheid-natuur/de-economie-groen-stimuleren-kunnen-we-het-daar-al-over-hebben~b92158e9/

Crist, M. (2020, March 27). What the Coronavirus Means for Climate Change. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-climate-change.html

Dutch News (2020, March 27). Cabinet delays climate change plans, corona measures cut air pollution. Dutch News. https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2020/03/cabinet-delays-climate-change-plans-corona-measures-cut-air-pollution/

Duursma, M. (2020, April 2). Tweede Kamer stemt in met ticketbelasting. NRC. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/04/02/vliegtaks-tweede-kamer-stemt-in-met-ticketbelasting-a3995667

Figueres, C. (2020, March 24). 5 Lessons From Coronavirus That Will Help Us Tackle Climate Change. Time. https://time.com/5808809/coronavirus-climate-action/

Slingerland, S. (2020, March 26). SUSTAINABILITY AND THE CLIMATE AFTER CORONA. Clingendael Institute. https://spectator.clingendael.org/en/publication/sustainability-and-climate-after-corona

Watts, J. (2020, March 10). Coronavirus could cause fall in global CO2 emissions. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/10/coronavirus-could-cause-fall-in-global-co2-emissions

Image:

ANP / Het Parool. (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.parool.nl/amsterdam/zo-ziet-een-verlaten-amsterdam-er-vanuit-de-lucht-uit~b9b3f08f/?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F

COP cancelled: Stepback or Opportunity for Climate Action?

See above my podcast about the cancelled COP and what could be next for the people staging demonstrations in front of it.

If the above file doesn’t work, here’s the link to the mp3 file:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1eYwUb6Acmor8klusv8oWS3qa4TNmnZUn

As a quick addendum: Out of the 59020 tons of CO2 eq I mentioned, that were emitted by the COP24 in Katowice, 54800 were compensated for through afforestation. I didn’t include this, because I thought a discussion on carbon compensation and afforestation in general would go beyond the scope of the podcast. Feel free to discuss the implications of this in the comments though.

References:

2020 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (n.d.). Conference of the Parties (COP). Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop

Bruckner T., I. A. Bashmakov, Y. Mulugetta, H. Chum, A. de la Vega Navarro, J. Edmonds, A. Faaij, B. Fungtammasan, A. Garg, E. Hertwich, D. Honnery, D. Infield, M. Kainuma, S. Khennas, S. Kim, H. B. Nimir, K. Riahi, N. Strachan, R. Wiser, and X. Zhang, 2014: Energy Systems. In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Carbon Footprint Ltd. (n.d.). Recycling. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://www.carbonfootprint.com/recycling.html

Eatz, J.G., (2020, January 12). Food’s Carbon Footprint. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://www.greeneatz.com/foods-carbon-footprint.html

Harvey, F. (2019, December 2). Climate crisis: what is COP and can it save the world? Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/dec/02/climate-crisis-what-is-cop-and-can-it-save-the-world

Harvey, F., & Ambrose, J. (2020, April 1). Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow postponed until 2021. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/01/uk-likely-to-postpone-cop26-un-climate-talks-glasgow-coronavirus?

Karpiński, T. (2019) CO2 Emissions Related to COP24 Conference in Katowice. The National Centre for Emissions Management Institute of Environmental Protection – National Research Institute. Retrieved from: https://cop24.gov.pl/fileadmin/user_upload/files/COP24_emissions_EN.pdf

Prenzel, N. (2019, August 14). Im Grund ganz einfach – das sind unsere Quellen. Retrieved April 7, 2020, from https://www.fluter.de/klimawandel/schaubildquellen

Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2017). The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters12(7). doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541

Music:

Too Young for secrets by Cloudchord and Soul Food Horns @cloudchord and @soulfoodhorns

Available from: https://soundcloud.com/chillhopdotcom/cloudchord-soul-food-horns-too-young-for-secrets

Audio Clips:

Greta Thunberg speaks ahead of climate march in Madrid as COP25 summit continues. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSBZMYxYyFU

Personal Communication. (5.4.2020)

Un Police Clash With Climate Activists From COP25 After Protest. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUT5WpLRlOw

Image:

 REUTERS / Juan Medina. (2019). Retrieved from: https://www.tellerreport.com/news/2019-12-07—climate–thousands-of-people-march-in-madrid-on-the-sidelines-of-the-cop25-.BkGkawi_ar.html

Uncle Wally’s Tale

Who was Wallace “Wally” Broecker?

Wally2One of the most influential and outspoken climate scientists died last month aged 87. Wallace Broecker, who spent his entire career at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, gained recognition through his research in the fields of oceanography and paleoclimatology. He is also accredited as having popularised the term “global warming” in his 1975 publication “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming”. In this paper, he argues that the climate is about to drastically warm due to the increase in CO2, a notion widely perceived as ‘fake news’ due to the cooling trend during the mid-20th century1. His discoveries in his over 60-year scientific career had great impacts on our understanding of the Earth system and climate. He was an early advocate of action against climate change and he was actively broadening his network to high ranking politicians such as Al Gore and people in business to explain the science behind climate change and convey the importance for climate action. He did so by publishing articles in popular press and speaking on television and radio2. Arguably his biggest contribution to our current understanding of global climate change is the discovery of the thermohaline circulation of the oceans, which his brother-in-law captured with the song “Uncle Wally’s Tale”.

“He has singlehandedly pushed more understanding than probably anybody in our field” – Richard Alley, Climatologist at Pennsylvania State University

The Thermohaline Circulation

Screenshot 2019-03-25 at 18.25.45

Most people might be familiar with the concept of the thermohaline circulation through the Gulf Stream that brings warmth to western Europe and giving it its mild winters. To illustrate, New York is frequently faced with strong blizzards during winter whereas Rome, Barcelona and Lisbon are cities known for their warm and mild climate; however, all four cities are roughly on the same latitude band!
The great ocean conveyor belt, as Broecker referred to the thermohaline circulation, is a collective of currents that transports warm water close to the surface towards the poles and cold water at the bottom back south. Through this circulation all oceans are connected. Broecker contributed greatly to the understanding of this circulation through the discovery that a complete circulation of a water parcel takes between 1000 and 2000 years. On such timescales, ocean-atmosphere interactions become more relevant because of the faster response time of the ocean to an atmospheric forcing. It was prior understanding that such a circulation operates on the timescales of 10,000 years2.
Water that reaches the poles cools until it is cold enough to sink to the bottom. This process is mainly driven by the density of water. As water cools and approaches 4 degrees Celsius, its density increases. Additionally, water high in salinity also increases in density. Thus, in order to sink, the water needs to be cold and highly saline. In the North Atlantic, this process is referred to as the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) formation. The NADW formation was the centre of attention of scientific research in the 80s and 90s and Broecker was on the forefront of this research. His investigations revolved around abrupt climate changes during the last glacial period (the last ice age). In Greenland ice cores and sediment cores from the North Atlantic, patterns of abrupt climate changes have been observed. In his paper “An Unstable Superconveyor”, Broecker3 identified a shutdown in the thermohaline circulation as the driving factor.

The “Achilles Heel” of the Climate System

A shutdown of the thermohaline circulation can be caused by a great influx of freshwater that prevents NADW formation because the diluted seawater is less dense and thus cannot sink. Abrupt climate changes, such as the ‘Heinrich events’ that occurred during the last ice age, occurred at times of a shutdown of the conveyor belt. It is thought that, in Broecker’s words, an ‘armada of icebergs’ originating in the Hudson Straight in Eastern Canada flushed the Atlantic with a large amount of freshwater. This influx of freshwater was thought to be large enough to cause the shutdown4–6. While Broecker initially believed that a shutdown of the ocean conveyor only occurred during ice ages, modelling studies soon showed that a shutdown is also possible during an interglacial period, such as the one we are experiencing today7. The warming caused by climate change will enhance the hydrological cycle, which manifests itself through increased precipitation and a stronger freshwater flux into the North Atlantic due to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. This gradual increase in freshwater would lead to a decrease in strength of the thermohaline circulation until it eventually stops. However, in contrast to the abrupt climate changes of the past, this process is thought to take at least a century8. The consequence of a shutdown would be significant cooling of approximately 5-8 degrees C over Europe. It was the earlier belief that a shutdown would cause immediate climate change leading us into the next ice age (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow by Roland Emmerich). However, this process is projected to proceed slowly and to merely offset the warming due to climate change, abrupt not on human but geologic timescales. Due to this variability in the ocean conveyor and the danger of a shutdown, Broecker called it the ‘Achilles heel’ of the climate system9.

Message from Al Gore celebrating Wally Broecker’s 50-year anniversary of active research into climate science

Uncle Wally’s Tale

Screenshot 2019-03-25 at 18.25.23

Uncle Wally’s Tale is a story about the great ocean conveyor that distributes heat across the planet and plays an integral part in the climate system. It is Wallace Broecker’s research into this topic that greatly affected our understanding of how our planet works and how climate change may alter the climate system. The ocean is now an integral part in climate science and the conveyor belt an important variable to consider in climate models trying to predict the climate response to global warming. His impact, however, reached further than the scientific community because of his work in publicising climate science, advocating action against climate change, and educating the public, politicians, and business leaders. It was his conviction that the climate system is an “angry beast” and we are “poking it” by adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere requiring urgent action.

Find his books downloadable as PDFs here!

 

References:

  1. Broecker, W. Climatic Change : Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming? Science (80-. ). 189, 460–463 (1975).
  2. Kimball, R. Profiles in Science for Science Librarians: Wallace Broecker. Sci. Technol. Libr. 30, 212–228 (2011).
  3. Broecker, W. An unstable superconveyor. Nature 367, 414–415 (1994).
  4. Hemming, S. R. Heinrich events: Massive late Pleistocene detritus layers of the North Atlantic and their global climate imprint. Rev. Geophys. 42, (2004).
  5. Broecker, W., Bond, G., Klas, M., Clark, E. & McManus, J. Origin of the northern Atlantic’s Heinrich events. Clim. Dyn. 6, 265–273 (1992).
  6. Bond, G. et al. Evidence for massive discharges of icebergs into the North Atlantic ocean during the last glacial period. Nature 360, 245–249 (1992).
  7. Broecker, W. Converging Paths Leading to the Role of the Oceans in Climate Change. Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 25, 19 (2000).
  8. Broecker, W. Global warming: Take action or wait? Chinese Sci. Bull. 51, 1018–1029 (2006).
  9. Broecker, W. Thermohaline Circulation, the Achilles Heel of Our Climate System: Will Man-Made CO2 Upset the Current Balance? Science (80-. ). 278, 1582–1588 (1997).

Photograph retrieved from: https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2019/02/19/wallace-broecker-early-prophet-of-climate-change/

Figures: Great Ocean Conveyor Belt & Angry Beast retrieved from ref 3 (Broecker, 1994)