Anne Mahrer and Rosmarie Wyder-Walti, of the Swiss elderly women group Senior Women for Climate Protection, talk to journalists after the verdict of the court in the climate case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France April 9, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

STRASBOURG, France: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday in favour of a group of elderly Swiss women who had argued that their government’s inadequate efforts to combat climate change put them at risk of dying during heatwaves.

The ECHR, part of the 46-member Council of Europe, however threw out two other cases against European states on procedural grounds.

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The European court’s decision on the case, brought by 2,500 women, aged 73 on average, could have a ripple effect across Europe and beyond, setting a precedent for how some courts deal with the rising tide of climate litigation argued on the basis of human rights infringements.

Court President Siofra O’Leary said the Swiss government had violated the human right to a private and family life, by failing to put in place sufficient domestic policies to tackle climate change.

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“This included a failure to quantify, through a carbon budget or otherwise, national greenhouse gas emissions limitations,” O’Leary told the courtroom.

She also noted the Swiss government had failed to meet its past greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, by not putting in place measures to ensure the goals were achieved.

Global civic movement Avaaz said the court’s ruling had opened a new chapter in climate litigation.

“The Swiss ruling sets a crucial legally binding precedent serving as a blueprint for how to successfully sue your own government over climate failures,” said Ruth Delbaere, legal campaigns director at Avaaz.

However, the court threw out two other similar cases, the first brought by six Portuguese youth against 32 European governments and another by a former French mayor against the French government.

“I really hoped that we would win against all the countries so obviously I’m disappointed that this didn’t happen,” Sofia Oliveira, one of the Portuguese youngsters said in a statement.

“But the most important thing is that the Court has said in the Swiss women’s case that governments must cut their emissions more to protect human rights. So, their win is a win for us too and a win for everyone!” The Swiss verdict, which cannot be appealed, could compel the government to take greater action on reducing emissions, including revising its 2030 emissions reductions targets to get in line with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The cases before the 17-judge panel in Strasbourg, France, joined a growing trend of communities bringing climate lawsuits against governments with arguments resting on human rights law.

First case

Hopes had been high for a legal turning point ahead of the rulings in the three cases, treated as a priority by the  judges of the court’s Grand Chamber.

In the first case, the court found that the Swiss state had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to respect for private and family life”, according to the ruling seen by AFP.

The court ordered the Swiss state to pay the association 80,000 euros (almost $87,000) within three months.

The lawyer of the Swiss association, Cordelia Bahr, said the court has “established that climate protection was a human right”.

“It’s a huge victory for us and a legal precedent for all the states of the Council of Europe,” she said.

Activist Greta Thunberg said it was “only the beginning of climate litigation”.

“All over the world more and more people are taking their government to court, holding them responsible for their actions,” she said inside the court after attending the rulings.


Joie Chowdhury, a lawyer from the Center for International Environmental Law, said the ruling was “historic”.

“We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” she said.

It “leaves no doubt: the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, and states have human rights obligations to act urgently and effectively... to prevent further devastation and harm to people and the environment,” she said.

Gerry Liston, of the NGO Global Legal Action Network, said before the rulings that a victory in any of the three cases could constitute “the most significant legal development on climate change for Europe since the signing of the Paris 2015 Agreement”.

The Paris Agreement set targets for governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The court decisions came as Europe’s climate monitor said March this year had been the hottest on record.

In a second case, the court dismissed a petition from six Portuguese people, aged 12 to 24, against 32 states including their own because the case had not exhausted all avenues at the national level.

Their case was not only against Portugal but also 31 other states - every European Union country, plus Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Russia.

Almost all European countries belong to the Council of Europe, not just the 27 EU members.

Russian was expelled from the council after its invasion of Ukraine but cases against Moscow are still heard at the court.

‘Climate inaction’

In a third case, the court rejected a claim from a former French mayor that the inaction of the French state posed the risk of his town being submerged under the North Sea.

The court found that Damien Careme, former mayor of the northern French coastal town of Grande-Synthe, was not a victim in the case as he had moved to Brussels at the time of his initial complaint in 2021.

In 2019, he filed a case at France’s Council of State - its highest administrative court - alleging “climate inaction” on the part of France.

The court ruled in favour of the municipality in July 2021 but rejected a case he’d brought in his own name, leading Careme to take it to the ECHR.

The European Convention on Human Rights does not contain any explicit provision relating to the environment.

But the court has already ruled based on its Article 8 that states have an obligation to maintain a “healthy environment”, in cases relating to waste management or industrial activities.