In October 2018, three German families and Greenpeace Germany filed suit in the Administrative Court of Berlin, asking the court to oblige the German government to update or supplement the National Climate Protection Programme 2020.
In December 2014, the German cabinet set a goal of reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 40% until the end of 2020, as compared to 1990 (the Climate Protection Plan). According to the government’s 2018 official climate protection report, however, reduction was likely to only reach 32%. The German families were comprised of organic farmers who claimed to already be experiencing the impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs argued that the government was bound by the Climate Protection Plan and alleged that the government’s failure to adhere to the 40% target encroaches on their human rights in violation of Article 2(2) (right to life and health), Article 12(1) (occupational freedom), and Article 14(1) (right to property) of the Basic Law. They further alleged that failure to meet the original 2020 goal breached Germany’s minimum obligations under the EU Effort Sharing Decision (406/2009/EC), which determines the contributions of the respective Member States to achieve a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the Community in economic sectors not subject to EU emissions trading.
The plaintiffs asked the court to hold that the government is obliged to: 1) implement the national Climate Protection Program 2020 by updating or supplementing appropriate measures to meet the 2020 target; 2) compensate for the excess of approximately 650 million tons of CO2 equivalent, accrued between 2007 and the time of delivery of the judgement, due to insufficient implementation of the 2020 target; and 3) supplement the national Climate Protection Program 2020 to meet the reduction targets set out in European environmental law.
On October 31, 2019 the Administrative Court of Berlin dismissed the case, concluding that the action was inadmissible for lack of standing. In its view, the Climate Protection Program 2020 was not legally binding, as it only constituted a political declaration of intent without any external effect on which plaintiffs could base their legal claims. The court further held that plaintiffs had not conclusively demonstrated that the government had violated their fundamental rights by setting inadequate climate protection targets, as “the mere fact that a very large number of people are affected by the effects of climate change does not rule out the possibility that they may be affected individually”. However, the court did find that the government’s climate policy is subject to judicial review and must be consistent with the government’s duties to protect fundamental rights under the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution. The court also determined that the government must undertake measures to provide adequate and effective protection of the fundamental rights potentially affected by climate change, including the rights to life and property. Nonetheless, the court concluded that the government is entitled to wide discretion in deciding how to meet these obligations, so long as precautionary measures to protect fundamental rights are not entirely unsuitable or wholly inadequate. In the court’s view, the government’s protection policy, which aimed to lower emissions by 32% rather than 40% by the end of 2020, was within this discretional margin.