Date of text
Sabin Center
Court name
Court of First Instance
Seat of court
Climate Change

Similar to the Urgenda case in the Netherlands, the Klimaatzaak -- "climate case" -- was brought by an organization of concerned citizens, and 58,000 citizen co-plaintiffs, arguing that Belgian law requires the Belgian government's approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be more aggressive. The suit named the Belgian State, the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region, and the Brussels-Capital Region as defendants. Specifically, plaintiffs called for reductions of 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 87.5% below 1990 levels by 2050.

From February 2019 through March 2020, the parties submitted their main conclusions and final conclusions. In their main conclusions, the plaintiffs seek a Court injunction directing the government to reduce emissions 42 to 48% in 2025 and at least 55 to 65% in 2030. Oral arguments were heard from March 16 to 26, 2021.

On June 17, 2021, the Brussels Court of First Instance held that the Belgium government breached its duty of care by failing to take necessary measures to prevent the harmful effects of climate change, but declined to set specific reduction targets on separation of powers grounds.

The Court first analyzed whether the claim was admissible, and, in doing so, whether the plaintiffs established that the proceedings would provide a benefit to them. Article 17 of the Judicial Code excludes actions brought in the general interest that only indirectly benefit the plaintiff. The Court found that both the 58,000 co-plaintiffs and the Klimaatzaak organization have a personal interest in the action. The citizen co-plaintiffs have a direct, personal interest because they seek to hold Belgian authorities responsible for the climate consequences on their daily lives, and the fact that other Belgian citizens may also suffer damages does not transform their interest into a general one. The Klimaatzaak organization has a direct, personal interest in part because environmental organizations have a privileged status to sue to defend the environmental from harm.

The Court found the federal state and the three regions jointly and individually in breach of their duty of care for failing to enact good climate governance. The Court found that despite being aware of the certain risk of dangerous climate change to the country's population, the authorities failed to take necessary action, meaning that they failed to act with prudence and diligence under Article 1382 of the Civil Code. Further, by failing to take sufficient climate action to protect the life and privacy of the plaintiffs, the defendants were in breach of their obligations under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the Court declined to issue an injunction ordering the government to set the specific emission reduction targets requested by the plaintiffs. The Court found that the separation of powers doctrine limited the Court's ability to set such targets, and doing so would contravene legislative or administrative authority. Neither European nor international law required the specific reduction targets requested by the plaintiffs, and that the scientific report that they relied on, while scientifically meritorious, was not legally binding. The specific targets, therefore, were a matter for the legislative and executive bodies to decide.

On November 17, 2021, Klimaatzaak appealed the judgment of the Brussels Court of First Instance. The appeal is primarily aimed at the Tribunal's refusal to set specific binding targets related to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions over time. Klimaatzaak notably argues that the Brussels Court of First Instance has confused two distinct sources of liability in its analysis of Article 1382 of the Belgian Civil Code in that it confined itself to taking as a reference only the emission reduction targets laid down by rules of positive international, European and Belgian law, and refrained from analyzing the authorities' conduct in the light of their knowledge of the danger and of what needed to be done to help prevent or limit it. Klimaatzaak also asks the Court of Appeal to repeal and correct what they argue are factual or legal errors in the judgment of June 17, 2021. The defending Governments are expected to reply to this petition and the Brussels Court of Appeal will review the factual and the legal components of the case in the course of the appeal procedure.

After a written round of conclusions that will take sixteen months, the case will be heard from September 14 to October 6, 2023.

Key environmental legal questions

Compel federal and regional governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions