By Whitney Akinyi

Climate change court cases have more than doubled globally, within a five-year period, a new report jointly published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University reveals.

The report, titled Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review, finds that the total number of climate change cases has surged dramatically from 884 in 2017 to an astonishing 2,180 in 2022. Developing countries, including Small Island Developing States, account for approximately 17% of all cases reported.

“In the face of soaring global temperatures and the intensification of extreme weather events, climate policies have lagged far behind what is urgently needed, as a result, more and more people are turning to courts, holding both governments and the private sector accountable, and making climate litigation an essential mechanism for driving climate action and ensuring climate justice,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

The extensive study is based on a review of cases focused on climate change law, policy, or science, spanning until 31st December 2022 and meticulously gathered from the Sabin Center’s US and Global Climate Change Litigation Databases.

Coinciding with the first anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s declaration that access to a clean and healthy environment is a universal human right, the report underlines the ever-increasing significance of legal channels in confronting the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

“We are witnessing a distressingly growing gap between the greenhouse gas reductions required to meet temperature targets and the actual actions taken by governments, this discrepancy is driving more individuals to seek recourse through the courts,” noted Michael Gerrard, Sabin Center’s Faculty Director.

According to the report, most ongoing climate litigation encompasses one or more of six primary categories, ranging from cases centered on human rights and challenges to the non-enforcement of climate-related laws and policies to efforts to prevent fossil fuel extraction, calls for greater climate disclosures and an end to greenwashing, as well as addressing corporate liability for climate harms and failures to adapt to climate change impacts.

A key revelation in the report is the growing recognition of the profound linkages between climate change and human rights. Consequently, vulnerable groups in society are enjoying greater protection, while accountability, transparency, and justice are receiving more robust enforcement. Governments and corporations are feeling the mounting pressure to adopt bolder climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, galvanized by these legal developments.

“By elevating the voices of vulnerable groups, climate litigation is driving home the message on a global scale,” stated the report. “Several landmark cases have challenged government decisions found to be inconsistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement or a country’s net-zero commitments.”

Looking forward, the report anticipates an upswing in cases linked to climate migration, cases initiated by Indigenous peoples, local communities, and groups disproportionately affected by climate change, and cases pertaining to liability in the aftermath of extreme weather events. Additionally, the challenges of applying climate attribution science and a rise in “backlash” cases aiming to dismantle climate action regulations are foreseen.

“The landmark conclusion by the UN Human Rights Committee that a country has violated international human rights law through climate policy and inaction is a significant turning point,” highlighted the report. “Courts in Paris and the Netherlands have also made historic rulings on climate inaction and corporate responsibilities.”