Skip to main content

Ground-breaking climate ruling will affect us all

Environmental Social and Governance By Simon Wyatt, Partner, Sustainability – 24 April 2024

Older woman holding a sign saying 'save the earth' in a climate protest


Simon Wyatt in front of office facade in a dark suit and blue shirt

Simon Wyatt

View bio

It shouldn’t need to be said that good government involves protecting the lives of citizens, yet here we are. Despite decades of science advocacy, grassroots advocacy, expert opinions, international conferences AND the Paris Accord, many governments still have not acted rapidly enough to protect the lives of their citizens from the impacts of climate change.

This is now a legal fact, following the landmark legal ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on a case brought by a group of older Swiss citizens, the Senior Women. The group took the Swiss government to the court on the basis that policy and practices have not been adequate to protect the health and the lives of older women from the effects of climate change.

Governments, after all, hold power over so many aspects of the climate action agenda – including building codes, energy policy and transport policies.

Climate change hits older women hard

According to health experts, older people are among the groups most vulnerable to effects including extreme heat, severe storms and increased spread of infectious disease. The 2010 EuroHEAT research project, which examined heat-related mortality records in nine major cities Europe, found that there was an increase in mortality of greater than 10% in Northern European cities, and in Milan exceeding 30% during heatwave episodes, and the greatest effect was seen among women aged 75-84 years.

A more recent analysis by Carbon Brief has found that women are also more likely to die in severe storm events, and are at greater risk of mental health impacts, escalating partner violence and food insecurity resulting from extreme weather events. Climate change is also associated with increased risk of maternal mortality and early infant death.

One of the other correlations noted by United Nations Climate Change is women comprise the majority of the world’s poor, and being poor is another factor that multiplies vulnerability. This is not something confined to the Global South, as the 2022 Europe Report of the Lancet Countdown on Climate and Health notes, “Population exposure to heatwaves increased by 57% on average in 2010–19 compared with 2000–09, and by more than 250% in some regions, putting older people, young children, people with underlying chronic health conditions, and people who do not have adequate access to health care at high risk of heat-related morbidity and mortality.”

Understanding the Swiss ruling

The case at the EUCHR was brought by the KlimaSeniorinnen, a group of more than 2,000 Swiss women aged over 64. They had previously filed legal action in the Swiss Courts over the government’s failures to enact sufficiently stringent legislation to reduce emissions and mitigate the potential effects of climate change, thereby putting their lives at risk.

The Swiss Courts rejected their case, so the women took their case to the European Court of Human Rights on three grounds:

Switzerland's inadequate climate policies violate the women's right to life and health under Articles 2 and 8 of the ECHR;
the Swiss Federal Supreme Court's rejected their case on arbitrary grounds, in violation of the right to a fair trial under Article 6;
and the Swiss authorities and courts did not deal with the content of their complaints, in violation of the right to an effective remedy in Article 13.

The Court found in their favour. As Reuters reported, “In her ruling, Court President Siofra O'Leary said the Swiss government had failed to comply with its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to set a national carbon budget.”

Why it matters

There are two reasons everyone in the built environment in UK and Europe should be considering the implications of this decision.

The first is, it sets a precedent for other governments, and no doubt there have been some worried conversations in the meeting rooms of the 46 European Nations – including the UK – that are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR ruling cannot be overturned and legally ties climate action to fundamental human rights around health and protection of life.

We can expect policy to take both ambition and regulatory levers for action up several notches, to protect governments from being sued by their own citizens.

This leads to the second reason building owners, portfolio managers and every member of the property value chain should take heed: if we are not designing, delivering and operating buildings that are net zero emissions and designed to protect occupants from climate-related impacts, we have failed to achieve the “G” in ESG. We may also potentially open the door for future litigation or other sanctions through failing to protect the lives and wellbeing of the people who occupy the places we create, invest in and manage.

It's human rights 101, really, the right to a safe, secure and liveable environment.