ClientEarth: Legal Action on Emissions Shows Results


“There’s a sort of cultural revolution going on, and it’s a revolution of people realizing that their governments aren’t serving them very well on certain extremely important issues, particularly climate change. So, they’re looking around for other ways of managing their affairs.” -Brian Eno on ClientEarth

My friend and collaborator, Brian Eno, recently mentioned to me an organization he is involved with. ClientEarth is an organization that has taken a somewhat unique approach to pushing for change regarding issues of pollution, fossil fuel emissions and more. Comprising a team of legal experts, they look for areas where regulations are being ignored or not being enforced and where legal violations have been unaddressed—and then they take action. They bring lawsuits against states and regions in order to effect change. It’s a slow process, and there's no guarantee of success, but in two well-documented cases their approach has produced positive results.

German Cities’ Right to Prohibit Diesel

Following a case brought by environmental lawyers representing ClientEarth and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, Germany’s top administrative court ruled in February 2018 that German cities have the right to prohibit diesel cars. While this ruling has not yet led to the direct authorization of such bans, restrictions on diesel car usage in the country’s most polluted cities are expected to be ratified by the end of 2018. Analysts predict the number of diesel cars being produced in Europe (which made up 52% of all new vehicles in 2015) could be cut nearly in half by 2025.

Greenpeace activists protesting in Stuttgart, Germany one week before the landmark ruling. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Greenpeace activists protesting in Stuttgart, Germany one week before the landmark ruling. Photo courtesy of AFP.

The Guardian reports that, "Excessive amounts of nitrogen oxides or NOx in the air kill between 6,000 and 13,000 people in Germany every year, causing a range of health conditions, from strokes to asthma. Most NOx comes from transport, especially diesel motors. The EU threshold of 40 micrograms of NOx per cubic metre is frequently exceeded in many German cities, with 70 [cities] on the list, most notably Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Munich.” 

According to Ugo Taddei, an environmental lawyer from ClientEarth who worked on the case, “This ruling gives long-awaited legal clarity that diesel restrictions are legally permissible and will unavoidably start a domino effect across the country. Putting traffic restrictions on the most polluting vehicles is the quickest and most effective way to protect people from harmful air pollution.”

UK Air Pollution

The UK government has announced plans to increase pollution taxes and ban all new diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles by 2040 in response response to the country’s failure to meet European Union emissions standards.

Photo courtesy of Unearthed.

Photo courtesy of Unearthed.

As a result of ClientEarth’s recent lawsuit against the UK government, the judge overseeing the case ordered local authorities to implement new actions to remedy the country's high levels of air pollution. The pollution is so bad it is considered a national health emergency, causing about 40,000 early deaths a year.

ClientEarth has brought and won three successive lawsuits regarding the legality of the country's air quality in April 2015, November 2016 and February 2018. According to Lexology: “On each occasion, the court has held that the government has failed to produce an adequate plan to tackle illegal levels of air pollution. The government’s air quality plans have failed to bring the UK into compliance with EU air quality standards, thereby rendering them unlawful.”

(I wonder if compliance with EU regulations will be enforced post-Brexit.)

The latest ruling resulted in a judgment that will allow ClientEarth to monitor the government’s actions and bring it back to court without having to apply for judicial review if it fails to remedy the issue. Moreover, the government was ordered to produce a compliant supplement to the 2017 Air Quality Plan for forty-five areas in England by October 5, 2018. The lawsuit also requires the creation of a Welsh Air Quality Plan by the end of July 2018. 

The CEO of ClientEarth, James Thornton, believes that “the environment no longer seems an intractable problem. We need lawyers, they bring hope, they can help you.”

So, though some of these regulations have yet to be put into effect, the road ahead is clear. There seems to be no doubt these changes will happen and that emissions will fall.

One wonders whether legal action might be a way to effect change in other areas beyond pollution as well—why not?