October 18, 2023
In an era marked by an impending urgency to address climate change, a pivotal moment in environmental law and human rights is unfolding. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is currently presiding over a landmark case that underlines the critical intersection of environmental sustainability and the safeguarding of human rights. Six young individuals from Portugal have brought their grievances before the ECHR, asserting that their failure to address climate change infringes upon their human rights. This article delves into the details of this landmark case, its legal foundation, and the potential far-reaching consequences for both the environment and the preservation of fundamental human rights.

Case Overview

Climate change is an increasingly pressing issue that affects all countries, regardless of their location or size. The recent case heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) between Duarte Agostinho and others v Portugal and others is a current example of this.

Six young people from Portugal (Cláudia Agostinho, 24, Martim Agostinho, 20, Mariana Agostinho, 11, Sofia Oliveira, 18, André Oliveira, 15, and Catarina Mota, 23) have taken 32 European governments to court, arguing their failure to act fast enough on climate change violates their human rights. They argued that their articles 2, 3, 8, and 14 rights are impaired because of the effects of climate change in general, including forest fires, and that, as young people, they stand to experience the worst effects of these impacts. These articles are:

• Their right to life (Article 2)

• The right to be free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3)

• Their right to privacy and family life (Article 8)

• Their right to be free from discrimination on grounds of age (Article 14) in conjunction with Article 2 and/or Article 8.

They argued, moreover, that the 33 states are under a positive obligation to enact effective domestic responses to climate change which satisfy what the applicants call the ‘overriding obligation’ of meeting the aspirational 1.5C target in the Paris Agreement. 

“Without urgent action to cut emissions, [the place] where I live will soon become an unbearable furnace,” applicant, Martim Agostinho, 20, said in a statement.

A lawyer for the Portuguese government argued that the evidence provided failed to show the specific damages caused by climate change on the lives of the young applicants. A decision from the court could be made within a few months and is expected in the first half of 2024.

The Role Of The European Court Of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is an international judicial body established under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It is based in Strasbourg, France, and serves as the final court of appeal for individuals and organisations who believe their human rights have been violated by a member state of the Council of Europe.

The ECHR plays a crucial role in safeguarding and interpreting the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention. It ensures that member states adhere to their obligations and provides a forum for individuals to seek justice when their rights are violated. The Court’s decisions have a significant impact on human rights protection across Europe, setting legal precedents and influencing national legislation.

Through its work, the ECHR contributes to the promotion and preservation of human rights, fostering a culture of respect, equality, and justice throughout the continent. Its decisions are not only binding but also serve as essential guidance for how countries should approach climate change policymaking regarding environmental law.


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Legal Precedent Implications

This case is a landmark moment for the protection of human rights and environmental sustainability. Not only does it mark the first time a European Court has heard a case related to climate change, but it also serves as an essential reminder that human rights must be respected and defended even in times of ecological crisis. This legal precedent reinforces the need for governments across Europe to prioritise emissions policies, and take meaningful action towards reducing greenhouse gas pollution. 

The implications of case ruling are far-reaching, as it provides evidence linking carbon dioxide emissions with violations of basic human rights. If the court rules that the countries have violated human rights, they will be forced to take greater responsibility for their emissions policies, creating more stringent regulations in order to protect our environment from dangerous levels of air pollution caused by humans, or otherwise face hefty fines, meaning the case may solidify new legal norms and doctrines that could accelerate the impact of rights-based climate litigation and spur more effective action on climate change

The case also differs from climate change cases heard previously because it takes advantage of the regional authority of the ECHR. The previously mentioned Paris Agreement for reducing emissions to reduce the global temperature does not distribute responsibility, whereas this ruling would require each country to ‘do their part’.

Future Outlook

As we move ahead towards a greener future, both citizens and countries must remember that our actions have consequences for our environment and our fellow citizens alike. It is essential that governments remain cognizant of rulings such as these and strive towards creating safer conditions through effective emissions policies. In doing so, we can ensure that future generations will enjoy a healthy planet free from dangerous emissions-related risks. This is crucial for aspiring lawyers to be aware of as they enter the legal landscape, shadowed by one of the most pressing issues of our time, as climate change will inevitably be involved in increasing numbers of legal cases in years to come.

Commercial Awareness Questions

To help you prepare for interviews and assessment centres, here’s our round-up of questions to challenge you to look more deeply into this topic:

  • How might this redefine the legal landscape for environmental issues in Europe? What implications could this have on a global scale?
  • In what ways can human rights be invoked to address climate change, and what precedent does the ECHR’s climate case set in this regard?
  • To what extent have international climate agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, been used to hold governments accountable for their climate actions?
  • How has youth activism influenced government policies on climate change, and what lessons can aspiring lawyers draw from their advocacy?


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