Climate activists tried in 2019 and failed to get a more decisive ruling from the committee. In an inventive complaint, 16 children filed a petition against five countries — Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey — claiming that their fossil fuel emissions violated the rights of children in other countries. In 2021, the committee concluded that the petitioners should bring cases to their national courts first.
The law firm that filed that petition, Hausfeld, said on Monday that the latest guidance by the committee was “a major step to hold governments and private entities responsible for ensuring children live in a clean, green, healthy and sustainable world.”
Many people have sought legal recourse for climate impacts in their own countries, with mixed results. Just this month, in the United States, a judge in Montana ruled that the state had violated its Constitution when it failed to consider the climate change effects of fossil fuel projects. That ruling requires Montana, a major coal and gas producer, to weigh those effects in deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects. The state said it would appeal.
In Australia, teenagers who won a similar case in 2021 lost on appeal in 2022.
Cases like these rely on the principle, embedded in many national and state constitutions, that citizens have a right to a clean environment. This is essentially what the Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in its interpretation of the child rights treaty. “Environmental degradation jeopardizes children’s ability to achieve their full developmental potential, with implications for a wide range of other rights under the convention,” it wrote.
The committee called on countries to “immediately” take several actions. Countries should “equitably phase out the use of coal, oil and natural gas,” the committee wrote, as well as invest in renewable energy, improve air quality, reduce marine pollution and protect biodiversity. And children should be able to pursue “class-action suits and public interest litigation,” the committee said.
International treaties and laws haven’t often been used in climate litigation. But that’s changing. The International Court of Justice is currently weighing whether countries can be sued under existing international conventions for failing to rein in fossil fuel emissions that caused the climate crisis.