Global trends in climate change litigation: 2019 snapshot


This policy report provides an overview of current issues in climate change litigation, focusing on selected cases and developments from May 2018 to May 2019. The report draws on the Climate Change Laws of the World database and the U.S. Climate Change Litigation database.

Headline issues

  • Climate change litigation continues to expand across jurisdictions as a tool to strengthen climate action, though more evidence of its impact is needed.
  • Climate change cases have been brought in at least 28 countries around the world, and of the recorded cases more than three quarters have been filed in the United States.
  • Most defendants are governments but lawsuits are increasingly targeting the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies.
  • Climate change-related claims are also being pursued by investors, activist shareholders, cities and states.
  • Climate change litigation in low- and middle-income countries is growing in quantity and importance.

Summary

Climate change litigation is increasingly viewed as a tool to influence policy outcomes and corporate behaviour. Strategic cases are designed to press national governments to be more ambitious on climate or to enforce existing legislation, while cases against major emitters seek compensation for loss and damage. Routine planning and regulatory cases are increasingly including climate change arguments, exposing courts to climate science and climate-related arguments even where incidental to the main claim.

Human rights and science are both playing an increasing role in climate change litigation. A human rights basis for litigation on climate change has had increasing resonance with judges in some strategic cases, despite challenges with regards to establishing causality. New lawsuits are also drawing on advancements in attribution science to establish a causal link between a particular source of emissions and climate-related harms.

Climate change litigation continues to see a geographic expansion. There are now cases in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region, and Europe. Several cases are being brought in low- and middle-income countries. The decisions given in Colombia and South Africa, for example, are novel and far-reaching in their findings and remedies provided to claimants. However, there are questions around the efficiency and effectiveness of enforcing judgements.

Litigation could encourage private companies and investors to give greater consideration to climate risk. Plaintiffs in several jurisdictions have made claims against investment funds and companies for failing to incorporate climate risk into their decision-making, and for failing to disclose climate risk to their beneficiaries.

As yet there is insufficient evidence of the impacts of climate change litigation. Greater assessment is needed of impacts beyond the courtroom.

Location and quantity of climate cases up to May 2019