Top of page

Article Switzerland: European Court of Human Rights Finds Switzerland Failed to Implement Regulations to Combat Climate Change

On April 9, 2024, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered a landmark decision, ruling that the Swiss Confederation had failed to comply with its duties under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) concerning climate change. It ruled that the Swiss state’s inactions violated article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) and article 6 (right to a fair trial and access to a court). Two other climate change cases were declared inadmissible.

Facts of the Case

Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland involved a complaint by a Swiss environmental association of elderly women (Verein KlimaSeniorinnen), and four individual women who alleged that the Swiss authorities had failed to fulfill their obligations under the ECHR to mitigate the effects of climate change. In particular, they alleged a violation of their duty to effectively protect life and thereby to ensure respect for their private and family life under article 8. (Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others decision paras. 10-21, 302, 304.) They further claimed that they had no access to a court to submit their complaints after their legal actions were rejected by an administrative authority and the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland (Bundesgericht, BG). (Id. para. 577; BG, paras. 5.5, 6.2.) The Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled that the applicants could not claim victim status under Swiss law and the ECHR. (BG, paras. 5.5, 6.2.)

Decision

The ECtHR found in favor of the Swiss association. However, it declared the individual applications inadmissible as the women did not have standing.

Individual Applications Inadmissible

Article 34 of the ECHR requires that for a complaint to be admissible, individuals must have victim status. The ECtHR explained that the requirements for establishing victim status in a climate change case are particularly stringent, as climate change concerns an unspecific number of persons who could potentially claim victim status. As the ECHR does not allow actio popularis, the ECtHR must rely on distinguishing criteria. (Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others decision paras. 483-485, 488; ECHR art. 34.)

The ECtHR held that individual applicants in climate change cases “need to show that they are personally and directly affected” by the governmental action or inaction which depends on two criteria: (1) high intensity of exposure of the applicants to the adverse effect of climate change, and (2) a pressing need to ensure the applicants’ individual protection. (Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others decision para. 487.)

Applying these criteria to the case at issue, the ECtHR ruled that the four individual applicants did not meet these criteria as they were able to adapt to climate change, specifically to heat waves, through “personal measures.” (Id. para. 533.) Therefore, their complaints were declared inadmissible. (Id. paras. 535, 536.)

Standing of the Association and Ruling on the Merits

On the other hand, the court ruled that the Swiss association met the relevant criteria and was able to act on behalf of its members in the case at issue. (Id. paras. 502, 525, 537.) As a non-profit association, it promotes and implements effective climate protection on behalf of its members’ lives, health, well-being, and quality of life as protected under the ECHR. (Id. paras. 521, 524.) The court stated further that the association not only protects individuals but also has necessary standing to act on behalf on the general public and future generations “by taking legal actions to address the effects of climate change in the interest of its members.” (Id. para. 521.)

By majority, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR ruled that individuals have a right to effective protection by state authorities from serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life under article 8 of the ECHR. (Id. para. 519.) It is the main duty of contracting states to adopt and to apply in practice, regulations and measures capable of mitigating the existing and future effects of climate change. (Id. para. 545.) States must enact necessary regulations and measures to prevent an increase of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global average temperature, as this can have serious effects on human rights under article 8. (Id. para. 546.) In the opinion of the court, the Swiss Confederation’s failure to implement legislation regarding climate change in a timely and appropriate manner caused a violation of article 8 of the ECHR. (Id. para. 573.)

Before complaining to the ECtHR, the applicant association’s legal action was rejected by a Swiss administrative authority and by the Swiss national courts at all levels. As the association’s legal action was rejected twice without the merits being assessed, the ECtHR ruled unanimously that there had been a violation of the right of access to a court guaranteed by article 6, para. 1 of the ECHR. (Id. paras. 630, 640.)

Concluding, the ECtHR stated that it was unable to prescribe any specific measures to ensure compliance with the judgement, given the complexity and nature of the issues involved. (Id. para. 657.) In the court’s opinion, the measures should be left to the respondent state, which has a margin of appreciation in which to act.

Background on Swiss Legislative Climate Legislation

In June 2023, Swiss voters approved the Climate and Innovation Act (Klima- und Innovationsgesetz, KIG), which aims to reduce GHG emissions, and to adapt and protect against the effects of climate change in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. (KIG art. 1.) The Paris Climate Agreement aims to keep the global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. (Paris Climate Agreement art. 1(a).) To achieve this, the Climate and Innovation Act codifies a net zero target of GHG emissions by 2050. (KIG art. 3.) The KIG is expected to enter into force on January 1, 2025.

Furthermore, the nationally determined contributions made under the Paris Climate Agreement are implemented through the Swiss CO2 Act (CO2-Gesetz). The primary objective of the CO2 Act is to limit “the global rise in temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius by reducing GHG emissions.” (CO2 Act art. 1, para. 1.)

Other Cases

In addition to the Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland case, the ECtHR also ruled in two other cases concerning the impact of global warming on the living conditions and health of the applicants. Furthermore, before the rulings in the three cases, the ECtHR adjourned seven other cases regarding climate change until the Grand Chamber had ruled in the three cases mentioned here. Among the cases that were adjourned is one application, Engels v. Germany, by nine German teenagers and young adults who complained that the German Climate Change Act (KSG) is insufficient to meet the goals sets by the Paris Climate Agreement. This complaint is a follow-up to a landmark climate change decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court from 2021.

Carême v. France

Carême v. France concerned a complaint by a former resident and mayor of Grande-Synthe in France, who alleged that France had taken insufficient steps to prevent climate change. (Carême v. France paras. 71, 72.) The ECtHR declared the application inadmissible, as the applicant no longer had relevant links with Grande-Synthe. In 2019, he had moved to Brussels and therefore could not claim to be a victim under article 34 of the ECHR. (Id. para. 83.)

Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 32 Other States

In the case of Duarte Agostinho and Others v. Portugal and 32 Other States, six young Portuguese nationals aged between 10 and 23 complained that their health and living conditions were affected by the GHG emissions emanating from 33 signatory states to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. They argued that their generation was particularly affected by the effects of climate change and, given their age, interference with their rights was greater than for older generations. In particular, they complained that the 33 states, including Portugal, violated articles 2 (right to life), 8 (right to respect for private and family life), and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the ECHR. (Duarte Agostinho v. Portugal, paras. 16-24, 66.)

The ECHR requires applicants to exhaust legal domestic remedies before applying at the ECtHR. (ECHR, art. 35, para. 1; Duarte Agostinho v. Portugal, para. 215.) The applicants contended, however, that they were not obliged to exhaust domestic remedies given the absence of effective remedies available in the respondent states. The ECtHR disagreed and declared the complaints against Portugal and the other states inadmissible. (Duarte Agostinho v. Portugal paras. 1, 21-218.) Additionally, the ECtHR ruled on the applicants’ request to “establish extraterritorial jurisdiction . . . to facilitate broader litigation relating to climate change.” The court stated that the ECHR “is not designed to provide general protection of the environment” and is not supposed to turn into a “global climate change treaty.” (Id. paras. 201, 208.) Consequently, the application was declared inadmissible. (Id. para. 214.)

Prepared by Eva Dauke, Law Library Intern, under the supervision of Jenny Gesley, Foreign Law Specialist

Law Library of Congress, May 15, 2024

Read more Global Legal Monitor articles.

About this Item

Title

  • Switzerland: European Court of Human Rights Finds Switzerland Failed to Implement Regulations to Combat Climate Change

Online Format

  • web page

Rights & Access

Publications of the Library of Congress are works of the United States Government as defined in the United States Code 17 U.S.C. §105 and therefore are not subject to copyright and are free to use and reuse.  The Library of Congress has no objection to the international use and reuse of Library U.S. Government works on loc.gov. These works are also available for worldwide use and reuse under CC0 1.0 Universal. 

More about Copyright and other Restrictions.

For guidance about compiling full citations consult Citing Primary Sources.

Credit Line: Law Library of Congress

Cite This Item

Citations are generated automatically from bibliographic data as a convenience, and may not be complete or accurate.

Chicago citation style:

Gesley, Jenny. Switzerland: European Court of Human Rights Finds Switzerland Failed to Implement Regulations to Combat Climate Change. 2024. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2024-05-14/switzerland-european-court-of-human-rights-finds-switzerland-failed-to-implement-regulations-to-combat-climate-change/.

APA citation style:

Gesley, J. (2024) Switzerland: European Court of Human Rights Finds Switzerland Failed to Implement Regulations to Combat Climate Change. [Web Page] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2024-05-14/switzerland-european-court-of-human-rights-finds-switzerland-failed-to-implement-regulations-to-combat-climate-change/.

MLA citation style:

Gesley, Jenny. Switzerland: European Court of Human Rights Finds Switzerland Failed to Implement Regulations to Combat Climate Change. 2024. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2024-05-14/switzerland-european-court-of-human-rights-finds-switzerland-failed-to-implement-regulations-to-combat-climate-change/>.