The Role of Courts in Tackling Climate Crisis

Photo by Markus Spiske

Dr. Birsha Ohdedar, Lecturer at the School of Law & Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, recently spoke at a special side event during COP26, hosted by global law firm Hausfeld, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) and the University of Glasgow on ‘Mobilising the Rule of Law in Climate Change’.

Birsha spoke alongside Dr. David R. Boyd (UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment), Prof. Michael Gerrard (Columbia Law School), Prof. Christina Voigt (the University of Oslo and Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, Co-chair of the Paris Agreement´s Compliance and Implementation Committee). The panel was chaired by Ingrid Gubbay (Hausfeld). The event also included keynotes from Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland) and Vanessa Nakate (Climate Justice advocate)

The panel addressed the issue of climate litigation. The role of litigation has been a rapidly emerging area in recent years. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, catalysed thousands of cases around the globe and has become a way to hold governments and corporations to account.

The panel built on discussions that took place in July at a ground-breaking global summit entitled ‘Our Future in the Balance: The Role of Courts and Tribunals in Meeting the Climate Crisis’, which resulted in a landmark Declaration outlining the role of the law and judiciary in addressing climate change.

Birsha’s presentation discussed the role of the judiciary in South Asia – its procedural and substantive innovations that have led to environmental rights-based public interest litigation since the 1980s. These innovations hold much promise in addressing the climate crisis.

However, as Birsha explains there are wider political-economy questions of how the courts deal with climate issues that may create obstacles. For instance, the deference to the executive on large economic projects (which often involve further climate harm), issues with enforcement of decisions, the types of environmental claims it favours, and how the judiciary deals with trade-offs between rights, justice and climate action.

In relation to the last point, Birsha argues that we may see an increase in litigation around ‘green’ projects, which negatively impact people’s rights, for instance, dispossession of land for solar energy, and for forest conservation. Thus, we need to work with lawyers and judges to better understand climate issues under a justice and rights framework, that doesn’t see ‘climate action’ further marginalising the already marginalised.

Birsha’s recent work on climate litigation includes a book chapter on litigation in India and Pakistan and a forthcoming article on climate adaptation, vulnerability and litigation in the Journal of Human Rights and Environment.

The presentation is available in the video below:

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