The 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize has been awarded to Marjan Minnesma, who sued the Dutch government over its carbon emissions plans
25 May 2022
By Adam Vaughan
From Australia to Pakistan, a growing wave of lawsuits is forcing governments and companies to take bolder action on climate change. There are now about 60 under way globally, up from 43 last year. Many owe their existence to one woman, Marjan Minnesma.
After graduating in international law on climate change, she co–founded the Dutch non-profit foundation Urgenda. There, she met lawyer Roger Cox and read his book on how authorities’ legal “duty of care” for their citizens could be used in the courts to accelerate climate action. “Until we won [against the Dutch government] in 2015, everybody thought it was impossible,” says Minnesma. Today, she has won a $200,000 award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, for making the impossible possible.
Few outside the Netherlands had heard of Urgenda until it won its breakthrough legal challenge in that country. It was a first, spurring victories in Germany, Ireland and beyond. “Urgenda has been a gamechanger,” says Joana Setzer at the London School of Economics, who tracks climate litigation. “[The 2015 lawsuit] was a very important case, and resulted in many other cases inspired by Urgenda.”
There is little doubt the case had a big legacy, domestically and internationally. The Dutch government appealed to the country’s supreme court and lost, before offering to spend an extra €4 billion on reducing emissions — a sum that eventually crept up to €45 billion.
The Netherlands implemented 30 of 54 solutions put forward by Urgenda and other groups, from boosting solar panels to cutting methane emissions. One coal plant was shut and a new law limits how much others can be used. “So in the end they did quite a lot. Way too late, of course, but they did do it,” says Minnesma.
Many of the lawsuits globally are about twisting the arm of countries to ramp up their emissions targets. Some, such as a case against the Pakistani government, are about adapting to climate change.
In various countries, including Australia and Italy, Urgenda is working directly with green campaigners in other jurisdictions to help. Elsewhere, plaintiffs are using materials the group has translated into English to make them widely accessible.
Minnesma says she was surprised by the wave of cases her victory inspired. “We were so focused on winning and on the case itself, we forgot there were people all over the world watching us,” she says.
The winning formula for this type of legal action seems to be simultaneously demonstrating governments’ duty of care to their citizens and the dangerous threat that climate change poses. One year ago, that model saw a Dutch court order Anglo-Dutch oil and gas giant Shell to improve its 2030 emissions goal, in what other lawyers called a landmark case. Shell filed an appeal in March this year.
Minnesma says Dutch government insiders told her they were inundated with calls from big companies concerned by the ruling’s implications. “It creates pressure”, she says. Still, she thinks governments are better targets for climate litigation than individual companies, because they can impose regulations and policies that force many firms to act.
She doesn’t rule out further climate litigation against the Dutch government if necessary, but for now her focus is on a tree-planting initiative and pressing ministers to adopt a new plan to decarbonise heavy industry.
Going to court is a last resort, says Minnesma. “It’s the last instance if you’re really worried and think, ‘I’ve tried everything, I’ve tried action, I’ve tried talking to them, I’ve made a book, I did everything.’ Then the last thing you do is go to court.”
Sign up to our free Fix the Planet newsletter to get a dose of climate optimism delivered straight to your inbox, every Thursday