The Hague - In a sweeping victory for Dutch environmental activists that could have global repercussions, a court ordered the government on Wednesday to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 to help fight global warming.
The ruling by The Hague District Court could lay the foundations for similar cases around the world, said the director of the organization that took the government to court on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens.
Climate activists in the packed courtroom clapped and cheered as Presiding Judge Hans Hofhuis read the ruling, which Greenpeace called "a game-changer in the fight against climate change."
The ruling came in the same month that Pope Francis released a massive encyclical on the environment urging nations to quickly overhaul their economies to cut emissions and save the Earth. Neighbouring France will also host a significant UN conference on fighting global warming later this year in Paris.
The Dutch plaintiffs argued - and the court agreed - that the government has a legal obligation to protect its people against looming dangers, including the effects of climate change on this low-lying country. Large swaths of the Netherlands are below sea level and vulnerable to rising sea levels blamed on global warming.
The Dutch government can appeal the ruling to a higher court, but did not immediately say if it would.
"This is a great victory - the judge said exactly what we wanted and had the courage and wisdom to say to the government 'you have a duty of care toward your citizens,'" said Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda, the group that filed the case.
"A courageous judge. This is fantastic," said Sharona Ceha, another Urgenda worker. "This is for my children and grandchildren."
Dutch government lawyers swiftly left the courtroom after the judgment. The Ministry for Infrastructure and Environment had no immediate comment.
To avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, which is caused by heat-trapping carbon dioxide being released by burning fossil fuels, countries around the world have agreed that global temperatures should stay below a 2°C rise compared to pre-industrial times.
A UN climate science panel has stated that to have a two-thirds chance of staying below that mark the world must cut emissions by some 40 to 70% by 2050.
Overseas groups also hailed the decision as a victory.
"The verdict is a milestone in the history of climate legislation, because it is the first time that a government was ordered to raise its climate ambition by a court," said Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network Europe. "We hope this kind of legal action will be replicated in Europe and around the world, pushing governments who are dragging their feet on climate action to scale up their efforts."
Trio added that the Dutch court did not go far enough. "The target should be much higher than 25% in order to be truly in line with what is needed to tackle climate change," he said.
The Dutch court said, based on current government climate policy, the Netherlands will cut its emissions by only 17% by 2020, compared with benchmark 1990 levels.
"The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment," read a statement from the court.
It remains unclear exactly how the court can enforce its ruling. It has the power to impose fines on those failing to carry out its orders, but it has never used such powers against the government and Urgenda did not request such a move, said judge Peter Blok.
Activists say a similar case is coming in Belgium. In Norway, a coalition of non-government groups is working on a case challenging the Norwegian government's licensing of new oil blocks in the Arctic, saying it violates the constitutional obligation to protect the climate.
Bill Hare, senior scientist at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organisation based in Berlin, said the Dutch ruling's impact could be massive.
"[The ruling] has the potential to become a precedent whose effect will ultimately flow through to undermining the markets for coal, oil and gas," he said.