A multidimensional concept with emerging guidelines and principles

Climate change is an inherently intergenerational issue: its adverse impacts, driven by human activity, pose serious implications for justice and equity between present and future generations. An important aspect is that decisions made today on mitigating climate change and investment into adaptation and resilience will have a major impact on the ability of people to effectively enjoy a clean, healthy and sustainable environment now and in the future.

As set out by the United Nations, intergenerational climate justice is grounded in the idea that the “pursuit of welfare by the current generation should not diminish opportunities for a good and decent life for succeeding generations”. Along with the narrower but related concept of intergenerational equity, which states that “every generation holds the Earth in common with members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future”, the two concepts coalesce around three main pillars of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: humanity’s collective duties to the future; creating new global public goods to be enjoyed by present and future generations alike; and inclusive governance and decision-making.

Intergenerational climate justice is thus a multidimensional concept, encompassing the ascription of responsibility for past and current greenhouse gas emissions, the distribution of endowment and natural resources (distributive justice), the displacement and imposition of types of climate risks, the restoration of earth systems and relationships between humans and nature (restorative justice) and governance structures in decision-making (procedural justice).

Guidelines and principles on intergenerational justice and equity are emerging (e.g. the Maastricht Principles on The Human Rights of Future Generations). Within multilateral institutions, intergenerational justice and equity are also being ‘mainstreamed’. At the COP27 climate summit in 2022, the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities called on the private sector to incorporate intergenerational equity considerations into climate transition plans. In May 2023, the UN endorsed the Common Principles on Future Generations, designed to ensure that UN agencies pursue actions, establish meaningful representations and foster partnerships and capabilities in the interests of future generations.

Calls for intergenerational climate justice and use of the courts

Calls for intergenerational climate justice today are often led by younger generations and driven by their grievances over the actions – and inactions – of states in perpetuating the climate crisis. In addition to advocacy campaigns by youth-led grassroot movements, activists are increasingly launching court action to pursue their complaints through so-called climate change litigation to seek accountability for actions that harm the rights of future generations.

Prominent cases include:

  • In 2019, 16 young people from around the world brought a legal complaint to the UN about Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey’s failure to address climate change, under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • In the case of Neubauer et al. v. Germany, youth plaintiffs successfully challenged the constitutionality of Germany’s emission reduction targets, claiming that the German Climate Protection Law violates the rights of future generations by introducing a legal requirement to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement but setting insufficiently strict 2030 emissions reduction targets and providing insufficient detail on plans to meet these targets.

Courts can provide an avenue to redress infringements of justice. For example:

In 2023, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the world’s highest court – was requested to issue an advisory opinion clarifying the duties of states to protect the climate system and the rights of present and future generations, and explain the legal consequences for states that have caused significant climate-induced harm to the most vulnerable communities. The advisory opinion campaign was led by the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, alongside the government of Vanuatu, and is a landmark example of how youth-led campaigns and climate litigation can be combined to push the intergenerational justice agenda.

Practical representations of intergenerational justice

The interconnectedness of past, present and future has long been embodied in legal cultures, including the practices of Indigenous Peoples and customary law. For example, in Māori communities, there is an understanding of connectivity over time and that decisions are made with reference to the impact on ‘mokopuna’s mokopuna’ (meaning four generations into the future). The traditional laws of Native American communities incorporate a similar principle of ‘seventh generation sustainability’, which broadly means that each generation is responsible for ensuring the survival of many generations to come.

There is growing acknowledgement by countries of the importance of intergenerational justice in national constitutions. For example, Article 73 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution states that every person has the right to a protected environment for the benefit of present and future generations and requires the state to take reasonable legislative and other measures to achieve the “progressive realisation” of this right. However, the justiciability, or ability of courts to hear these matters, varies, as do the ways in which intergenerational justice is recognised across national constitutions.

Climate change legislation also increasingly adopts concepts from the discourse of intergenerational justice. As of December 2023, at least 38 national-level climate change laws and policies across 26 countries refer to intergenerational justice or related concepts. The concept is also being incorporated into legislation across different levels of government. In one innovative example, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires public bodies to act in a manner that seeks to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (echoing the definition of sustainability first put forward in 1987 by the UN Brundtland Commission). The Act also established a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to help support such public bodies in considering the long-term impact of their decisions. However, while the explicit recognition of intergenerational climate justice in some laws and policies is promising, this does not alone guarantee that action will be aligned with the needs of present and future generations.

This Explainer was written by Jodi-Ann Wang and Tiffanie Chan, with review by Catherine Higham.

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