Youth activists sue 33 European countries over "fuelling" climate crisis

Students hold 'Fridays for Future' rally in front of the Parliament in Lisbon, Portugal, 29 November 2019. (Keystone / EPA / Antonio Pedro Santos)

Deadly forest fires, sweltering heat, and insufficient action from governments have pushed young activists to take the climate emergency into their own hands.

With the help of Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), six Portuguese children and young adults have alleged 33 countries of “failing to enact” the urgent emissions cuts required to safeguard their future.

Why this is important. Described to be “unprecedented”, the case lodged last week was the first of its kind to be filed at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The case appeals to arguments based on human rights and comes against the backdrop of a global wave of climate change litigation.

Many similar cases filed in domestic courts have employed such a strategy and had been considered to be major successes. One such case was the landmark ruling in 2019 demanding climate action in the Netherlands, where after six years, the Dutch court upheld that the government needs to do much more to cut carbon emissions.

The rest, however, had largely been unsuccessful as courts deemed governments’ climate policies to be “compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights,” according to Marc Willers QC, the lead counsel in the case. They’re hoping to turn this around through the latest case.

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The six Portuguese climate activists. On left (clockwise), Cláudia Agostinho (21), Martim Agostinho (17), Catarina Mota (20), and Mariana Agostinho (8), from the Leiria region. On right, Andre Oliveira (12) and his sister Sofia Oliveira (15) from Lisbon. Source:

“An emergency like no other.” The case comes after Portugal recorded the hottest July in ninety years. The climate crisis is already being faced by the youth, and inadequate action from these countries remains a threat to the younger generation's physical and mental wellbeing. As Catarina Mota, one of the four youth activists living in Leiria, one of the regions worst-hit by forest fires, mentioned:

“It terrifies me to know that the record-breaking heatwaves we have endured are only just the beginning. With so little time left to stop this, we must do everything we can to force governments to properly protect us.”

Another activist, Andre Oliveira, aged 12, comes from Lisbon, a city that experienced a record 44°C during a heatwave in 2018. With translation help from his father, he said in the press conference on Thursday:

"Our generation is living in an age of great danger and uncertainty, so our voice must be heard.”

A chance for a green recovery. The lawsuit cites as evidence data from the Climate Action Tracker, a platform that tracks how well countries are pursuing climate policies that will limit warming to 1.5°C. It argues that the policies of these 33 countries, including the EU, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, are too weak to meet the overall goal of the Paris Agreement.

As these countries prepare to rebuild their economy, this might be one of the last chances to create stronger and greener policies – primarily by reducing emissions by at least 65% before 2030. As Gerry Liston, legal officer from GLAN, succinctly put it,

“If [these countries] are serious about their legal obligations to prevent climate catastrophe, they will use this money to ensure a radical and rapid transition away from fossil fuels… There is no true recovery if it is not a green recovery.”

Deutsche Welle – Portuguese youth activists sue 33 countries over climate change