Youths sue European states over treaty protecting fossil fuels

Five young people who count themselves as victims of climate change filed lawsuits on Tuesday (21 June) at the European Court of Human Rights against European states for letting the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) delay the green transition.

The first action to target the ECT’s role in delaying climate action comes ahead of a crucial meeting of the treaty’s 52 signatories on Friday, where member countries are expected to announce a political agreement to reform the charter, seen as “outdated” by the EU.

“I saw entire parts of my life vanish by the floods last year, neighbourhoods have been destroyed, and four people lost their lives,” said Damien, a 23-year-old Belgian national living in Chaudfontaine, a town that was severely hit by deadly floods in July 2021.

“The sound of water or rain makes me nervous. At the slightest rainfall or information about similar disasters, the fear returns.”

The five young people are suing Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK for breaching their human rights obligations and observing a treaty they claim is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

To back their case, they point out that the ECT gives fossil fuel companies the power to sue governments for billions of euros in compensation over their climate policies through private arbitration tribunals that are democratically unaccountable.

The plaintiffs have all faced exposure to natural disasters fuelled by climate change.

‘Constant threat and uncertainty’

Another plaintiff is Alexandros, a 21-year-old student from Greece who experienced two forest fires in July 2021 while spending his summer holidays at his family house in Athens.

“In 2018, a fire happened 18 km from my home (in Mati) and killed 103 people,” he recalls. “We are under constant threat and uncertainty about our future. I feel stressed. Whenever I see pine trees under the sun, I get scared of a fire,” said Alexandros.

Their lawyer, Clémentine Baldon, says the ECT has exposed governments to substantial financial risks when taking climate action.

Last year, German energy giants RWE and Uniper filed separate lawsuits against the Netherlands to claim compensation over the country’s planned coal phase-out by 2030.

Both mean Dutch taxpayers may have to foot the bill for the companies’ stranded coal assets.

Signed in 1994 to protect cross-border investment in the energy sector, the ECT has faced growing criticism from environmental groups and governments who say it impedes countries’ efforts to phase out fossil fuels.

Talks about reforming the treaty began in July 2020, with the European Commission negotiating on behalf of the 27 EU member states. But any change to the ECT requires unanimity among the charter’s 52 signatories, and negotiations have made little progress so far.

Frustrated with the slow pace of talks, a growing number of EU governments have shown signs of impatience and expressed doubts that the EU can fulfil its mandate of aligning the treaty with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain have all signalled their readiness to consider a withdrawal from the treaty.

Yamina Saheb, a former ECT employee who now campaigns for withdrawal from the treaty, said the main target of the lawsuit was the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism included in the ECT.

The lawsuit comes ahead of a European Parliament vote on Thursday (23 June), where lawmakers will outline their red lines for the reform of the ECT.

On Friday, the ECT secretariat convened an ad-hoc conference in Brussels among its 52 signatories to thrash out a political agreement on a proposed reform.

Europe edging closer to withdrawal from Energy Charter Treaty

More European Union countries have shown signs of impatience with the ongoing reform of the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), which critics say impedes international efforts to phase out fossil fuels, according to leaked diplomatic cables seen by EURACTIV.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]