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Court Tosses Climate Change Suit Against German Government

In a blow to environmental activists, a German court on Thursday shot down a lawsuit brought by three farming families accusing the government of not doing enough to halt climate change and protect their farms.

(CN) – In a blow to environmental activists, a German court on Thursday shot down a lawsuit brought by three farming families accusing the government of not doing enough to halt climate change and protect their farms.

It was a setback for a wave of legal challenges designed to spur action on climate change by holding governments to account. Similarly, a number of legal challenges are wending their way through courts around the globe holding corporations responsible for climate change.

This assault on governments and corporations has had mixed success, though a case similar to the German one was successfully brought against the Dutch government by the environmental group Urgenda. It scored a landmark victory in 2015 and that ruling was upheld last year at the appellate level.

On Thursday, a Berlin administrative court ruled at the end of a one-day hearing there was no legal basis for the plaintiffs' claims. This is the first time the German government has been sued over its climate change policies. The families said they will appeal.

Germany's environment ministry said the ruling was not a “setback for climate protection.”

“It clarified legal issues today, not political issues,” a ministry spokesman said, according to German news media. “The plaintiffs and us share the same goal: a climate policy with which Germany reaches its climate targets. That's what the federal government is working on.”

But the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a coalition between conservatives and Social Democrats, has come under pressure to do more to reduce carbon emissions and tackle global warming. Merkel has announced ambitious goals to cut greenhouse gases to 55% of their 1990 level by 2030, but her government has not agreed on how to do that. It is failing to meet goals it previously set to cut emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.

Global warming is now a major issue in European politics and voters are increasingly demanding governments do more to curb global warming, as seen with the success of Green parties in elections this year. However, new measures to tackle global warming have also been met with protests, as seen in France with the Yellow Vests protests and in Holland with Dutch farmers blocking roads with tractors.

Lisa Badum, a spokeswoman for the Green Party in Germany's Bundestag, called the court's ruling “an indictment of the federal government's climate policy.”

“If we cannot grow enough food in our fields in the future, we know which government we can thank,” she said, according to dpa, a German news agency.

The suit by three families that run organic farms was backed by Greenpeace, an environmental group. The farmers argued that they were already hurt by man-made global warming as evidenced by crop failures caused by heavy rains, drought and insect infestations. They argued that this was a violation of their fundamental rights.

Greenpeace argued that Germany's government could be held partly responsible because it was failing to meet its 2020 goals.

Rhoda Verheyen, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued the government's goals on cutting greenhouse gases amounted to a binding pledge.

“First this was a political promise, which then became a plan,” she told the Associated Press prior to the hearing. “Ultimately they are suing to have a promise that we see as binding fulfilled.”

The court disagreed and found that the government's pledges did not constitute a legally binding rule.

Lorenz Gösta Beutin, a politician with the Left party, said the court's ruling “shows that climate protection and climate protection goals must be legally binding and enforceable.”

Greenpeace has argued that Germany could meet its 2020 goals. For example, it has cited studies that show closing down lignite-fired power plants and investing more on renewable energy such as solar and wind power could help meet those goals.

Plaintiff Silke Backsen said in interviews before Thursday's hearing that it was becoming increasingly more difficult for farmers like her because of climate change. Her family has a cattle farm on the North Sea island of Pellworm.

“The weather over the 2017-2018 period played a big role. We went from a total monsoon in 2017 to an extremely dry phase,” she told Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster. “As temperatures rise, it's becoming increasingly difficult to farm in the way we do.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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