Saving the Planet – One Lawsuit at a Time
A look at recent climate statistics is all it takes to see that nature needs a good lawyer. These people and organizations have successfully sued corporations and governments for neglecting or ignoring environmental issues. Read More
Not all environmental activists chain themselves to trees or free animals from laboratories. Some wear a suit and tie, and they take the fight to where it scares their opponents most: the courtroom.
Environmental law organizations have been pushing for green laws and suing polluters for decades. They prosecute those who cut down the rainforest, pollute the air, torture animals for meat production, and overfish the oceans, using their skills and understanding of the law-making process to enforce more environmentally friendly policies. The list of their achievements is long: plastic bans, laws to protect clean air and water, stopping deforestation, and saving the habitats of endangered species. And in thousands of ongoing cases, these organizations are still fighting to halt global warming and enable a greener future for all.
Nature has lawyered up
The Earthjustice NGO is an environmental law pioneer. Since the early 1970s, the San Francisco based organization has been fighting in courtrooms to protect the environment from profit-driven ventures. In 1972, they helped propel a ground-breaking case to victory that prevented the Walt Disney Corporation from constructing a giant ski resort in California’s Sierra Nevada and, on a larger scale, contributed to establishing citizens’ rights to sue for environmental damages done to their region. At the same time, Earthjustice set out on a mission to expose the true costs of coal to the public eye. By raising awareness of air pollution caused by coal-powered plants, they effectively prevented the construction of a new project on Utah’s Kaiparowits plateau in 1975. Dozens of similar achievements followed over the decades. Today Earthjustice is supervising the shutdown of the last remaining coal-powered plants in North America.
That’s just a snapshot of the overwhelming number of environmental issues the NGO is involved in. Today, the organization employs 160 lawyers in offices all over North America. In 2020, they were handling over 600 ongoing cases. The lawsuits revolve around issues such as preventing fracking, preserving the Arctic ocean, protecting biodiversity, as well as limiting pollution by pesticides and toxic chemicals.
Funded by individual donations and foundations, the organization relies on public support. It therefore regularly runs awareness-raising campaigns to expose environmental crimes and draw attention to sustainability issues.
Pushing for green laws all over the world
Nature has lawyered up in Europe, too. The London based ClientEarth NGO is active in more than 50 different countries and boasts more than 150 lawyers handling over 160 cases on environmental issues. Since it was founded in 2007, ClientEarth has prevented dozens of coal-fired power plants across Europe, helped control illegal logging in Africa’s last great rainforest in the Congo Basin, and been involved in enabling environmental lawsuits in China. ClientEarth’s founder James Thornton has been bringing legal action against those who exploit nature for decades.
The pioneers: conservation area instead of a ski resort
The people who would later found Earthjustice failed with their very first suit – and yet the Mineral King case would go on to become one of their greatest successes. Their court case to halt the Walt Disney Company’s plans to build a ski resort on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains went all the way to the US supreme court, which rejected this final appeal in 1972. In their decision, the justices indicated that the content of the suit could still be changed and might have a better chance of success if it involved real people who had been harmed.
The lawyers went to court again, this time with private plaintiffs who frequently visited Mineral King and contended that Disney’s plans would cause them significant damage. This approach proved successful. The ski resort was never built and the US Congress added Mineral King to Sequoia National Park in October 1978.
The case set an important precedent as well, since it acknowledged the right of private parties to fight to protect the environment in court. This has only been possible in the EU since the Aarhus Convention was ratified in 2005. Now this approach is frequently used on both sides of the Atlantic.
No new coal-fired power plants in Poland
Sometimes a trick or two can help if a private citizen or consumer has little chance of winning a case. When Polish energy companies ENEA and Energa announced plans to build a new coal-fired power plant in Northeastern Poland, ClientEarth purchased ten shares in ENEA – a very small amount – and used its new status as shareholder to protest the planned construction. “The 1.2 billion euros invested would have been inextricably linked to CO2 intensive energy production,” Peter Barnett from EarthJustice explains. This served as a basis for the organisation’s objections.
“The investment would be very financially risky because of competition from renewable energies and rising carbon pricing. We wanted a court of law to confirm that building the power plant would have gone against the company’s economic interests.” The Poznán district court agreed and the company’s resolution was declared invalid in summer 2019. In February 2020, ENEA announced it was pulling out of the project. Barnett says the court’s ruling sent a clear message: “Energy producers will have to take risks posed by climate change into account when planning future investments. One day, the board might be held accountable for having ignored the risks.”
In the 1980s, he won a 1.3 million-dollar case against a pig mast operation for polluting river water. Eighty more similar cases followed in the US. He realized that hitting corporations with costly court cases and high fines was the most efficient way to make them change their practices. “Money is the only language that corporations understand,” Thornton said in an interview.
ClientEarth uses lawsuits to encourage governments to pass stricter laws. The NGO has sued the British government for weak air quality guidelines three times and won every case. In Germany, it joined forces with the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) environmental group and took the around 40 cities with nitrogen oxide levels above EU limits to court, where the ruling was in their favor in more than one third cases.
ClientEarth lawyers have also joined other NGOs involved in the negotiations for the EU’s single-use plastics ban in an effort to close possible loopholes and keep the law from being watered down. Lawyer Tatiana Luján explained that much more than plastic straws was at stake: “We are applying the polluter-pays principle. Manufacturers must pay to clean up the beaches, for example.
I explain to investor groups that they are taking a risk if they invest in companies with a large plastic portfolio and tell them to just imagine the claims that might be made for damages in future.”
“Money is the only language that corporations understand.”
Today, ClientEarth also lobbies for environmental protection in the country that emits the most carbon dioxide in the world - China. Together with the European Union, they train Chinese judges and prosecutors on environmental law. Although they are frequently violated, James Thornton praises China's environmental laws, especially since the concept of “ecological civilization” was added to the Chinese Communist Party’s value program in 2013. With the country’s rapidly growing economy and ever-increasing thirst for energy, committing to an ecological civilization seems crucial. During the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity in September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping reinforced his country's commitment, stating that China will continuously strive to improve environmental protection. “We must give high priority to making ecological progress and incorporate it into all aspects and the whole process of advancing economic, political, cultural, and social progress, work hard to build a beautiful country, and achieve lasting and sustainable development of the Chinese nation,” Xi Jinping said in an official statement.
Tirelessly tackling pollution
Meanwhile, there are over 20,000 ongoing cases concerning violations of China's environmental laws. Lawyer Zhang Jingjing spent years taking polluters in China to court and forcing them to respect the laws. In the late 1990s, she joined the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims and helped win a class-action lawsuit against a chemical corporation that had polluted the water in the Fujian province. Her impressive achievements and determination have earned her the nickname “China’s Erin Brockovich”. Today Zhang, who describes herself as a global citizen, lectures at the University of Maryland and battles Chinese owned mines and power plants for environmental violations all over the world.
“I’m not against my country. I am against polluters.”
Chinese companies dominate the mining of natural resources in many developing countries. Zhang and other lawyers step in wherever such companies are ignoring or circumventing local laws. “I’m not against my country. I am against polluters,” Zhang said in a recent interview about her work against mining projects in West Africa.
The struggle of organizations like Earthjustice and lawyers like Zhang Jingjing might sometimes seem like battling a hydra that grows two new heads for every one that is lopped off, as new, profit-driven projects that cause environmental harm keep popping up relentlessly. But every time a new regulation makes the legal framework stricter on environmental issues, lawyers can push their demands a little further. And every time a court accepts a new type of suit, it opens up new opportunities.
Colombia: Deforestation is an abuse of basic rights
In 2018, Colombian citizens successfully sued their government for neglecting climate conservation and breaking the Paris Climate Accord. Twenty-five young member of the Dejusticia NGO demanded that the Colombian government and a number of local governments protect their right to a healthy environment, life, health, food and water.
They argued that their government was not complying with the Paris Accord it signed, nor making the necessary effort to halt the destruction of the rain forest. In its ruling, the Colombian Supreme Court ordered the Colombian government to enact conservation measures and granted it four months in which to present an action plan to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region to zero. The high court also ordered the municipalities of the Amazon to update their land management plans along with the environment institutions in the region and to issue an action plan to reduce regional deforestation.
When citizens sue their government
At the end of 2019, a landmark decision was the first to establish a EU state government’s legal obligation to prevent climate change. In a final appeal, the highest court in the land, the Dutch Supreme Court, ruled that the failure to combat climate change significantly endangered the well-being of citizens and was therefore a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Dangerous climate change, the argument went, threatens a citizen’s right to life and well-being. The court confirmed a ruling from a lower court that the Netherlands needed to lower CO2 emission by at least 25 percent compared to 1990 levels within a year.
Dutch environmental association Urgenda filed the case with the support of almost 900 citizens. They based their case on human rights and the Dutch constitution which requires the state to protect its citizens and ensure the country remains a livable place. From the start, it was clear that the government was unlikely to be able to achieve the goal fully, since only a 15 percent reduction had been achieved in 2019. But the Dutch government immediately laid out ambitious plans for reducing greenhouse gasses. “This is the most important court ruling on climate change in the world so far,” David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment said.