European Court of Human Rights Rules Against Switzerland on Climate Change 

STRASBOURG – France – 23 May 2015 – European parliament
April 10, 2024

On April 9, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Swiss government violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to do enough to combat climate change. The case was brought by a group of older Swiss women, mostly in their 70s, who argued that Switzerland’s weak climate policies had violated their right to family life, with their age and gender making them particularly vulnerable to the effects of heatwaves. However, the Court rejected as inadmissible two other climate cases, one bought by a former French mayor against the French government and another by six young people from Portugal.

The decision should influence governments to take further steps to regulate the emissions of multinational companies that are significantly contributing to climate change. Swiss Fortune Global 500 companies, including Glencore, Swiss Re, and Zurich Insurance, which have small carbon budgets, should now feel increasing pressure to reach net zero quicker than Switzerland’s original goal of 2050.

To date, corporate sustainability teams are divided into social and environmental experts, typically with a larger budget allocation to the company’s environmental agenda. The recent lawsuit highlights that companies might need to rethink this separation.

Our Center’s work has highlighted that successful climate strategies require a strong human rights foundation. In our research on responsible cobalt sourcing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we demonstrated that the transition to electric vehicles is causing increased demand for informal artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) to extract cobalt quickly. These ASM sites are not “formalized,” meaning that no standards apply to extract the ore responsibly. ASM formalization would prevent children to be present at dangerous mine sites and stop miners from working in unsafe mining tunnels without personal protective equipment. The lack of formalization exacerbates the pre-existing social and environmental risks associated with informal ASM. Companies that use cobalt need to legitimize and encourage the formalization of ASM in the DRC.

Our case study of Veja, a French sneaker company, documented a business model that incentivizes the sustainable sourcing of rubber by tying the payment of premiums to the condition that rubber production does not advance deforestation. This model economically empowers local communities, while ensuring that their habitat is protected.

The Swiss lawsuit adds another puzzle piece to a citizen-driven, bottom-up political movement in Europe that demands that governments take more action to address climate concerns. It will increase the pressure on European governments to develop more concrete climate action plans in the context of their commitment to human rights. Governments in all likelihood will pass on some of this pressure to companies and mandate that they develop business models that advance human rights and environmental targets. Supporting companies in transforming business so that profits and principles can coexist has become an urgent priority.


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