Climate Case Ireland: The right to a healthy environment “is not a radical request”

1 July 2021

In July 2020, history was made when Friends of the Irish Environment challenged the Government in the Supreme Court – and won.

Climate Case Ireland was a landmark legal action taken by Friends of the Irish Environment. It wasthe first case in Ireland in which citizens fought to hold their government accountable for its role in willingly and knowingly contributing to dangerous levels of climate change.

The legal team of Friends of the Irish Environment argued that the Irish Government’s approval of the National Mitigation Plan in 2017 was in violation of Ireland’s Climate Act 2015, the Irish Constitution and human rights obligations.

The case is the first of its kind in Ireland and the second case worldwide in which the highest national court of law ruled that a governments climate mitigation policies do not comply with the law and must revise its national climate policy.

The Supreme Court judge, Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke ruled that the Governments climate policy was unlawful and was to be quashed and replaced with a new climate action plan.

After the success of Climate Case Ireland, a number of high-profile climate cases have been occurring globally, as governments are being challenged over their climate policies.

Systematic climate cases are also working their way through the national courts of Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, the United States, Canada, Peru and South Korea.

One year on from the historic win – Climate Case Ireland is calling for the Irish Government to formally recognise the constitutional right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment.

The organisation penned an open letter to the Department of Climate Action urging the Government to a hold a Citizens’ Assembly on the biodiversity crisis before the Dail breaks for its summer recess in mid-July.

In 2019, the Dail officially declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and called for a Citizens’ Assembly to examine how the State can improve its response to biodiversity loss.

The problem is ” monstrous”

One year since the Government’s public commitment to “progressing the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly on Biodiversity” – no further announcements have been made.

“It’s not a radical request,” Fiona O’Malley of Climate Case Ireland told The Green News. “We just want the Government to deliver what it said it would over two years ago.”

Climate Case Ireland are standing by the call for a Citizens’ Assembly as the appropriate method to discuss the best ways to realise and successfully execute the right to a safe, clean healthy and sustainable environment, while also discussing and considering what a Just Transition means and how it can be achieved.

“Often at times I think people can find the climate crisis difficult to talk about because of the sheer scale of the problem. It’s monstrous,” said Ms O’Malley.

“But this is the biggest crisis the world has faced in modern history.

“We cannot stick our heads in the sand and act like the problem will somehow solve itself. The science is telling us that we have a very small window of time in which we can fix this,” she continued.

Climate Case Ireland is stressing that the shortage of time to enact change and save the climate is a key reason the reason for the Irish Government to announce a date for a Citizens’ Assembly on the biodiversity crisis and the possibility of the constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“The sooner it’s [the right to a healthy environment] in the constitution, the better for environmental justice and indeed human rights,” said Ms O’Malley.

Campaigners from Climate Case Ireland mark their historic win in 2020 Photo: Climate Case Ireland

In March, Ireland – with 68 other countries – submitted a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in which it contended that “a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment.

The document continues to state that Ireland as a signatory is committed to an “open, transparent and inclusive dialogue” on a global level to the possible recognition of the right and its impact on future generations.

Following the statement, a group of more than 50 UN human rights experts called on States to take urgent and timely action to recognise and implement the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

They stated that the recognition of the right to a healthy environment is key to addressing the environmental crisis and protecting human rights.

The adverse effects of climate change are having disproportionate impacts on women, girls and those who are already vulnerable to environmental harm, including those living in poverty, minorities, older persons and racially and ethically marginalized groups.

According to the UN human rights experts, applying a rights-based approach to the environmental crisis not only clarifies what is at stake but it emphasises prevention, increases accountability and focuses on the needs of those most affected.

The statement recognised that if the right to a healthy environment was implemented and respected, it would provide an important safeguard for people and the planet.

More than 1,100 civil society, child, youth and indigenous peoples’ organisations have come together to call on Member States to recognise the right to a healthy environment.

“It is time for global recognition of the human right to a healthy environment – recognition that can lead to stronger policies, at all levels, to protect our planet and our children,” said the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.

Of the UN’s 193 members, 156 have written the right of a healthy environment into their constitutions, legislation and regional treaties.

Ireland is not one of the UN Member States to include the right, as there is no derived constitutional right to a healthy environment under Ireland’s Constitution.

By Shauna Burdis