Youth Climate Activists See Legal Wins in Germany

Our Daily Planet

At the end of April, in a case brought by youth climate activists, Germany's highest court ruled that the German government's commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were insufficient to meeting future needs. A week later, the Ministry of Environment proposed to increase Germany's emissions reduction target to 65% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels in addition to changing the target for climate neutrality, from the original 2050 to 2045

Why This Matters

This case demonstrates the power of youth climate action but also an increasing trend of how lawsuits can help shape government policy.

The case also shows the sophistication of legal arguments now being presented by plaintiffs. As Bloomberg wrote, the activists argued that their human rights are threatened because climate policies in 33 countries are not sufficient to meet the Paris target. And in their ruling, the judges cited an article in the European Convention for Human Rights that plaintiffs hadn’t even thought about invoking -- Article 3, which prohibits torture and degrading treatment.

Changing Tides

It seems that this decision reflects a shift in the tide of public opinion toward more aggressive climate action -- the German Green Party leads in polls predicting the September elections. Even the state of Bavaria, one of the most conservative states in Germany, has voted to move up its target for climate neutrality.

The Power of Youth Climate Activism

The Paris Agreement spawned a series of climate litigation cases -- of the 1,727 cases recorded between 1986 and 2020 -- over 50% had begun after 2015. Many of these cases are led by young activists, many of whom organized the mass climate actions in 2019.

These activists have not only gone after governments but private companies as well. Activists have targeted fossil fuel companies, dairy farming in New Zealand, insurance companies in Poland, and more, to challenge greenwashing and financial risk disclosure.

Fridays For Future: Our House is on Fire, April 21, 2020.

Nick Heubeck, a 22-year-old student and a spokesperson for the Fridays For Future movement in Germany, one of the organizations supporting the suit, said:

For us it has been rather shocking, we were surprised because we did not have so many expectations of winning. Much of what has happened over the past few days would have been completely unthinkable before the ruling.

350: Climate strikers are back on the streets!, September 29, 2020.


In the US the most well-known youth climate case, Juliana v. United States, has not seen the same level of triumph. Most recently, a federal judge ordered the young plaintiffs to settle the case. As Reuters reported, US District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene directed attorneys on both sides to work toward settling the pioneering case, but legal experts said the Biden administration may only be willing to promise to tackle climate change, a long way from endorsing the youth’s claim that the country’s energy policy violates their constitutional rights.