20 journalists from across Europe gather in Vienna to discuss climate rights and climate litigation

Climate lawsuits have more than doubled in the past 5 years and climate litigation has become a key tool in delivering climate justice, a recent UNEP says. Climate rights and climate litigation were therefore a logical topic for this year’s BlueLink international journalism workshop.

The workshop took place in Vienna on February 25-26 and gathered 20 journalists from 13 EU countries. A number of lawyers from Austria, Estonia, Hungary and Romania – part of the international network of green lawyers Justice and Environment (J&E) – tооk journalists behind the scenes of their climate lawsuits and explained the legal strategies and arguments against the public authorities they took to court for their poor climate policies.

The workshop was facilitated by award-winning multi-platform journalist Elinda Labropoulou (centre, first raw on photo above), CNN reporter focusing on environmental refugees, and experienced environmental journalist Pavel Antonov (right, last raw), PhD - BlueLink's Executive Editor and Co-founder.

The workshop was part of the project Discussions and Actions for Climate and the Environment (DACE), coordinated by J&E. As part of the project in 2022 six members of J&E from Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Spain set out to define what climate rights are by studying national and international legal frameworks and then holding a number of local events to raise people’s awareness of their climate rights and what they can do to pursue them. Partners also surveyed public perceptions of climate change and people’s attitude to upholding their climate rights.

The lawsuits presented within the workshop sometimes helped shift the tide, sometimes fell short of it, but still managed to “win time” and delay fossil fuel or other projects that would have had a negative impact on climate. All cases were a good example of the truth in the words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead who was quoted by workshop speaker Kertu Birgit Anton: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Gregor Schamschula, an environmental lawyer with ÖKOBÜRO, Austria, presented the climate case led by Greenpeace, ÖKOBÜRO and lawyer Michaela Krömer against Austri’s flight tax exemption. In 2020, 8,063 petitioners filed a request with Austria’s Constitutional Court. They claimed that the value-added tax exemption on cross-border flights and the kerosene exemption on national flights contribute to climate change by making it less expensive to fly than to travel by train, which is eco-friendlier. The Court dismissed the cause, ruling that “applicants were not affected by the tax break, as they bought train tickets, not plane tickets”. Nevertheless, within a few months the tax loophole was closed by Ministry of Environment.

The second case Schamschula presented was the lawsuit of various NGOs against the third runway of Vienna International Airport. They argued that authorizing the runway would do more harm to the public interest than good, primarily because it would run contrary to Austria’s national and international obligations to mitigate climate change. The Austrian Federal Administrative Court overturned the construction permit. However, the Constitutional Court overruled the decision and construction was approved.

Kertu Birgit Anton, climate activist and junior legal expert at the Estonian Environmental Law Center and Fridays for Future Estonia presented the case of Fridays for Future Estonia (FFE) v. the municipality of Narva-Jõesuu. In 2020, FFE started a legal fight agaist the construction permit for a new shale oil plant issued to the state-owned energy group Eesti Energia. Shale oil is a fossil fuel produced from oil shale (a coal-like fossil fuel found in Estonia) and exported outside the EU to be used as fuel on long-range ships. Fridays for Future alleged that the municipality of Narva-Jõesuu issued the permit without adequately assessing its climate impacts and the commitments made under the Paris Agreement, as well as the EU objective to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The Supreme Court annulled the permit, but a new one was issued in 2023. The plant is likely to start operation in late 2024, if it manages to get an integrated permit.

Jasmin Duregger, climate and energy expert at Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe spoke about Greenpeace’s case against the approval of 3 new oil fields in Norway. Those are not in line with the Norwegian constitution and Norway’s international human rights commitments. In January 2024, the approval of all 3 oil and gas fields was declared invalid. However, the State appealed the decision. The case is pending.

Another case Duregger presented is currently pending before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) -- KlimaSeniorinnen v Switzerland. The case was filed in 2020 against the Swiss government by an association of senior women. The reason: senior women are particularly susceptible to intense and frequent heat waves. The ECHR ruling is expected in June 2024.

Csaba Kiss, environmental lawyer and J&E coordinator, spoke about the case agianst a Hungarian tourist project at the lake of Balaton. The project would have required clear-cutting a big area now covered with trees and increased traffic and pollution in the area. Friends of the Earth Hungary claimed the project would have had a siginificant impact on climate. The case was won -- the court annulled the tourist project.

Vlad Popescu, director of Bankwatch Romania, presented the lawsuit Declic et al. v. The Romanian Government. In 2023, the NGO Declic and a number of individuals lodged a case before the Cluj Court of Appeal against the Romanian Government and two ministries. Declic asked the Court to order the authorities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. It also demanded that the Court order the Romanian Government to increase the share of renewables to 45% and energy efficiency by 13% by 2030. Further, they requested the court to order the Romanian authorities to implement concrete and coherent climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, including annual carbon budgets, within a maximum of 30 days from the final judgment, in order to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The Court of Appeal rejected the case, saying that it cannot decide on concrete measures to be taken because that would constitute an interference with the separation of powers. The court also said that a Long-Term Strategy for climate action was in place, therefore no lack of interest in climate action could be proved. 

Popescu also spoke about the lawsuite of Bankwatch Romania and Agent Green against the permit for the Taia micro-hydropower plant. Unfortunately, the case was lost and the plaintiffs were required to pay 36,000 EUR in legal expenses.


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This article and the workshop are part of the Justice and Environment (J&E) network's initiative, called Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment and executed with the support of the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). All views and opinions expressed are the authors’ only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union (EU).