Climate change litigation and human rights

Guest Lecture Series
20 May 2021
20 May 2021

Where: Zoom Platform, h. 12.30


The 2015 Paris Agreement set the path to address the climate emergency and to get to net zero emissions by 2050. However, it provides little means to hold state and corporate actors to account for failing to deliver on the promised emission reductions. The same may be said about much national climate legislation, which does not provide measures to hold public authorities accountable for failing to meet emission reduction targets. Similarly, liability and insurance regimes all over the world are yet to provide convincing answers to the complex compensatory and restorative justice questions associated with the impacts of climate change, such as floods, droughts, wildfires and people displacement.

Before climate change law rises to these challenges, litigants around the world have increasingly tried to push the boundaries of extant law, by filing test cases prompting state and corporate actors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and redress the harms associated with the impacts of climate change. In March 2021, the world’s leading climate litigation databases curated by the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law and the Grantham Research Institute in Climate Change and the Environment list over 1,700 cases worldwide.

To date, only 87 of these cases invoke human rights, but the numbers are rising fast. By far and large, human rights-based climate cases – broadly understood as encompassing also complaints before national and international quasi-judicial and non-judicial bodies – predominantly target states (e.g. citizens suing governments), but increasingly also non-state actors (e.g. citizens suing corporations). Typically, most of these cases rely on human rights to prop up arguments based on private or administrative law. ‘Pure’ human rights complaints are however on the rise, with individual and groups seeking human rights remedies at the national and international level, with the aim to name and shame state and corporate actors. Conversely, no inter-state complaint based on human rights has been lodged, though this matter has been at the centre of much scholarly speculation.

This lecture will take stock of these developments, explaining what climate litigation is and how it works, and why it increasingly relies on human rights. 

Background reading: Plugging the enforcement gap: The rise and rise of human rights in climate change litigation 

Further info: Global Network on Human Rights and the Environment webinar series on human rights based climate litigation


Dr Annalisa Savaresi is Senior Lecturer in Environmental Law at Stirling University. She is an expert in climate change law and on the interplay between human rights and environmental law, with 20 years’ experience working with international and nongovernmental organizations. Since turning to academia in 2009, she has contributed to numerous law and policy reports for international organisations and governments. She has given evidence to the UK, the EU and Scottish Parliaments and provided technical advice in the context of the world’s first inquiry into the human rights violations associated with the climate impacts caused by fossil fuel corporations – the so called ‘Carbon Majors inquiry’. Her numerous publications have been widely cited and Annalisa has been invited to teach environmental law at prestigious institutions all over the world. She is Director for Europe of the Global Network on Human Rights and the Environment, associate editor of the Review of European, Comparative and International Law and member of the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law.

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