Courts register sharp rise in climate litigation, UN report finds

People, groups and even governments are suing to force action or seek damages

Trees toppled by Typhoon Doksuri block a road in Baguio City, in the northern Philippines. AP
Powered by automated translation

The number of lawsuits being filed over the effects of climate change has more than doubled in recent years as people and groups turn to the courts to seek compensation and action on global warming.

A report released by the UN on Thursday found that 2,180 climate litigation cases were filed worldwide across 65 jurisdictions as of the end of 2022, a significant increase from the 884 cases recorded in 2017.

Thirty-four of the cases were brought by and on behalf of children and youth under the age of 25, the report from the UN Environment Programme (Unep) and the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia University found.

The US is leading with 1,522 cases, followed by 127 cases in Australia, 79 in the UK and 62 in the EU. Other regions, including other countries in Oceania, which is vulnerable to sea-level rise, also filed lawsuits.

Report authors stated that the increase in litigation highlights the legal impacts of climate change and the growing responsibility of government and the private sector to address its consequences.

“The climate crisis is getting worse and not better. And people are increasingly turning to the courts for answers,” Andrew Raine, Unep's head of the International Environmental Law, told reporters.

Climate litigation, which traces its origins back to the late 1980s in the US, has now evolved into a global phenomenon.

It escalated significantly after the adoption of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.

Despite its non-legally binding nature, the accord has played a vital role in promoting accountability and ambition among nations in combating climate change.

In 2021, indigenous groups from Brazil and Colombia lodged a lawsuit against the French supermarket chain, Casino, alleging systematic violations of human rights and environmental laws.

The accusation pertained to the supermarket's sale of beef that was allegedly associated with land grabbing and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

“Courts around the world are responding to these cases,” Lucy Maxwell, co-director of the Climate Litigation Network, told The National.

"Since 2018, the highest courts in the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany, Nepal and Colombia have all recognised that climate action by governments is a legal duty."

In March, the first climate change case at the European Court of Human Rights was brought by a group of Swiss women pensioners who claim that their country's inaction in the face of rising temperatures puts them at risk of dying during heatwaves.

The same month, the small Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu won a major victory to advance international climate law after it persuaded the UN General Assembly to ask the world’s highest international court to rule on the obligations of countries to address climate change.

The request for an advisory ruling from the International Court of Justice is expected to clarify the legal obligations of countries to address climate change and to create a path for them to be sued if they fail to do so.

Increased public awareness has also spurred a rise in “climate greenwashing” litigation against corporations over their false or misleading climate communications, according to the report.

Last year in France, environmental groups sued TotalEnergies over its advertising campaign, saying they were false and misleading in their depiction of the role of gas and biofuels.

The report also anticipates a rise in litigation centred around migrants, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers who are seeking temporary or permanent relocation from their home countries or regions, in part due to the effects of climate change.

Climate tipping points – in pictures

Updated: July 27, 2023, 4:16 AM