Filipino activists shout slogans during a play depicting the effects of climate change as they join the Climate Solidarity Prayer March in Manila back in November 2015. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Filipino activists shout slogans during a play depicting the effects of climate change as they join the Climate Solidarity Prayer March in Manila back in November 2015. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A new chapter in the emerging role of courts in limiting the effects of climate change opened on July 27, 2016 when the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR) ordered 47 ‘carbon majors’ — including Shell, BP, Chevron, BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Canadian companies EnCana, Suncor, Canadian Natural Resources and Husky Energy — to respond to allegations of gross human rights violations resulting from their activities and processes within 45 days.

This potential landmark legal case was brought before the CHR, a constitutional body with the power to investigate human rights violations in the Philippines, by Greenpeace Southeast Asia. In its 60-page petition, Greenpeace accused ‘carbon majors’ of breaching people’s fundamental rights to “life, food, water, sanitation, adequate housing, and to self determination” by not reducing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from their activities.  The CHR consequently ordered the companies to demonstrate how human rights violations resulting from GHG emissions and climate change will be “eliminated, remedied and prevented”.

This order is the first-ever climate-related national human rights investigation and a significant addition to a string of legal victories obtained by innovative climate citizen suits before national courts and tribunals in the last two years in Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, the European Union, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The Philippines decision and other successful citizen climate suits signal the increasing relevance of domestic climate litigation, even after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The importance of citizen climate suits was the topic earlier this summer in Norway, at an event organized by CIGI’s International Law Research Program, as a prelude to the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law 2016 Oslo Colloquium.  The panel was chaired by CIGI Senior Research Fellow and environmental law specialist, David Estrin, who recently published a CIGI policy paper on this topic. In Oslo, Zelda dT Soriano, the Legal and Political Advisor for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, gave detailed historical account of the Philippines human rights case. Senior climate litigators from the Netherlands, the United States and Pakistan also shared similar stories of citizen groups successfully taking legal action to address climate mitigation and adaptation at the CIGI Oslo event.  

2015 proved to be a remarkable year in the global efforts to address climate change, not only due to the successful efforts that led to the signature of the Paris Agreement, but also because of the brave efforts of citizens and hard work of their climate litigators to advance ground-breaking cases in national courts and tribunals.  The Philippines decision is one of many cases that confirm the continued relevance of domestic citizen climate litigation in ensuring that states take necessary actions at the national and subnational levels to achieve timely implementation of the fundamental Paris Agreement goal to drastically limit GHG emissions and to address the social impacts of climate change.  

CIGI-ILRP will continue to analyse and examine the emerging new role of atmospheric trust litigation, citizen suits and human rights commissions in limiting dangerous climate change. 

The Philippines decision and other successful citizen climate suits signal the increasing relevance of domestic climate litigation, even after the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
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