Nine young people filed a lawsuit against the German Federal Climate Protection Act and for their right to a humane future.
The young plaintiffs, aged between 15 and 32, want to have German climate policy reviewed by the Federal Constitutional Court. They are of the opinion that the Federal Government is not doing enough to combat the climate crisis with the Climate Protection Act and is thereby violating their fundamental rights - in particular their right to a humane future. The aim of the constitutional complaint is on the one hand to ensure that the law is adapted, but above all that laws with a conclusive reduction path towards greenhouse gas neutrality are enacted and implemented as quickly as possible. Germanwatch, Greenpeace and Protect the Planet support them with this.
1. What is the constitutional complaint about?close
A group of nine young people between the ages of 15 and 32 want to have German climate policies reviewed by the Federal Constitutional Court. They argue that the Federal Climate Protection Act in force since 18 December 2019 is too weak to contain the climate crisis and protect their right to a humane future.
The plaintiffs' lives extend into the second half of the 21st century, in which the effects of global warming will reach a much higher intensity than is already the case today. They experience the effects of climate change already today: Extreme weather phenomena are increasing, affecting the plaintiffs' fundamental rights such as the right to physical integrity and health, property, employment and freedom of development. The Federal Government is not fulfilling its protective mandate enshrined in the Basic Law.
They therefore call on the Federal Constitutional Court to declare that the Climate Protection Act does not conform to the Constitution and that the legislature is obliged to implement laws with a conclusive reduction path towards greenhouse gas neutrality within a certain period of time (which the court may set).
2. Who are the plaintiffs and how are they affected by the climate crisis?close
Lüke Recktenwald (18 years old) is a student and lives on Langeoog. His family has been living on the North Sea island for four generations and runs a hotel and restaurant there. However, Lüke is already experiencing the effects of climate change: due to rising sea levels, storm tides and the resulting erosion of the dunes, the family's property and home is in danger. The island's drinking water supply is also threatened. Due to the rise of the sea level, salt water could enter to the only source of drinking water, the so-called freshwater lens, and make it unusable for decades - with serious consequences for life on the island. It is unclear how long Lüke can continue to live on Langeoog and whether he will be able to take over the family business in the future. Lüke is already a co-plaintiff in the European „People‘s Climate Case”, which calls for more ambitious European climate targets. The lawsuit is currently pending before the European Court of Justice on appeal.
Luisa Neubauer is Germany's best-known climate activist. At 23 years of age, the geography student belongs to the generation that will be confronted with dramatic effects of the climate crisis in the second half of the century. The co-founder of the German Fridays-for-Future movement has effectively "suspended" her education and private life in order to work together with hundreds of thousands of members of her generation for more climate protection, both politically and in the media. Through her involvement in the climate action, she is now also demanding effective protection for her and future generations in court. She participates in the lawsuit as a private individual.
The four siblings Sophie (21 years), Paul (20 years), Hannes (17 years) and Jakob (15 years) Backsen are from the North Sea island of Pellworm and wish to continue living there in the future. Their farm Edenswarf is a family business from the 17th century and will one day be taken over by the children. On their farm, the family is engaged in farming and cattle. The Backsens also keep sheep on the dike and rent out holiday apartments on the island. In September 2017, one third of Pellworm was completely under water. Pellworm is nearly entirely located one meter below sea level. This means that with increasing storm tides the island could fill up like a bathtub after a dike burst. As a result of the climate crisis, extreme weather events such as heavy rain or drought are becoming more frequent. If the sea level rises, the existing dikes may soon no longer be sufficient to protect the island. Pellworm would become uninhabitable, even for the four children of the Backsen family.
Lucas Lütke-Schwienhorst (32) has taken over the Ogrosen farm in Vetschau (Brandenburg), which has existed for more than 200 years, from his parents. The Lütke-Schwienhorsts keep about 120 dairy cows. The farm shop sells cheese, dairy products and other products of the Ogrosen farm community. Extreme weather events such as the last hot summers with far too little rainfall hit the farm hard: in the last two years, only about half of the usual hay and grain yield could be brought in during the summer. The unusually hot summer also impacted the animals - they suffered from heat stress. The forest belonging to the estate is extremely damaged. The ongoing climate crisis is thus endangering the income and property of Lucas and his family as well as the life of the next generations on the Ogrosen farm.
Johannes und Franziska Blohm are to inherit their father's traditional fruit farm someday. However, whether the centuries-old farm will survive the coming generations is increasingly questionable. In the "Altes Land" near Hamburg, apples are the main crop grown on the organic farm alongside other types of fruit. The increase in extreme weather conditions, as well as plagues and fruit diseases that were previously unknown in these latitudes, are giving the organic farm a hard time - direct and indirect consequences of global warming.
It applies to all plaintiffs that - without sufficiently ambitious climate protection - they are looking at an uncertain and geopolitically even more unstable future and also put life at risk with increasing impacts. In Germany, extreme weather events and new types of diseases pose health risks, as well, which would not exist without climate change. For the plaintiffs' generation, climate change is simply a threat to their very existence.
3. What is the aim of the lawsuit?close
The aim of the complaint is to have the Federal Climate Protection Act adapted, but above all to implement laws with a coherent reduction path towards greenhouse gas neutrality as quickly as possible. If one takes the successful Urgenda climate case in the Netherlands as an example and applies the same principles, Germany must, on the basis of the research results of the IPCC, reduce emissions significantly faster than the Climate Protection Act provides (instead of 55% between 65-75% relative to 1990), the annual reduction rate must be increased significantly.
In addition, the legislator must be instructed that the further emission reductions may not be sold in other European countries, as the Federal Climate Protection Act currently allows. Only if all the reduction achievements of the law are achieved domestically, there is a chance that a sufficiently fast reduction path, also in the EU, will be started. This is because the German law only implements the European climate target for 2030, namely a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990. This target is objectively unsuitable and illegal from an EU and human rights perspective.
In a constitutional complaint, so-called cassation claims can be asserted (annulment), but applications for a declaratory judgment can also be made, in particular on the incompatibility of certain provisions with the Basic Law. This constitutional complaint combines both with regard to the Federal Climate Protection Act, and also contains a motion for a declaratory judgement to the effect that the legislature is obliged to enact measures and laws as quickly as possible to implement the necessary reduction paths towards greenhouse gas neutrality.
4. What is the state of the proceedings?close
The complaint was submitted to the Federal Constitutional Court on 12 February 2020 (file no.: 1 BvR 288/20). The Court first examines the acceptance of the complaint in preliminary proceedings. It must be accepted for decision if it is of fundamental constitutional significance. The complainants hope that the Court will base its decision on this reason for acceptance.
On 19 June 2020, the Federal Constitutional Court sent the complaint to the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, the Chancellery, the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice as well as to all state governments with the request to comment. This is the first important step towards a possible acceptance of the constitutional complaint.
If the complaint is not accepted for decision, reasons may be given for this, but this is not obligatory. A so-called non-acceptance decision can be very detailed and can form a kind of guideline for politicians and courts.
If the complaint is accepted, the procedure is conducted in accordance with the Federal Constitutional Court Law, according to which the Court can decide to hear third parties. In this case it is likely that the Court will hear a large number of actors in the Federal Republic, i.e. Länder, associations and experts (similar to the procedure for the amendment of the Atomic Energy Act.) A preliminary written procedure would be conducted and an oral hearing would be held in Karlsruhe.
5. Who is involved?close
The environmental organisations Greenpeace, Germanwatch and Protect the Planet support the constitutional complaint, but do not appear as plaintiffs. They are in touch with the plaintiffs and inform the German public about the case.
6. Are there other constitutional complaints?close
The complaint of the nine young people is not the only constitutional complaint regarding climate protection. An alliance of plaintiffs (Solar Energy Promotion Association of Germany (SFV), Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and other individual plaintiffs already filed a lawsuit with the Federal Constitutional Court in November 2018 on the grounds of insufficient German climate policy. You can find more information here.
On 15 January 2020, ten children and young adults from Germany and fifteen citizens from Bangladesh and Nepal affected by climate change each filed a constitutional complaint against the climate protection measures of the Federal Government with the Federal Constitutional Court. Environmental Action Germany (DUH) supports these two constitutional complaints. You can find more information here.
7. Are there other lawsuits by young people to demand climate justice?close
In addition to the constitutional complaints in Germany, there are other legal proceedings by young people for climate justice:
People’s Climate Case: In May 2018, ten families affected by climate change from the EU, Kenya and Fiji, including children and young people, as well as a Sami youth association from Sweden, filed a lawsuit against the Parliament and Council of the EU at the European Court. The main aim of the lawsuit is to show that the existing European climate target for 2030 is insufficient to mitigate climate change and protect the plaintiffs' fundamental rights. Lüke Recktenwald (plaintiff in the constitutional complaint) and his family are also involved in the case. You can find more information here.
Complaint before the UN: Climate activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other children filed a complaint with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva in September 2019. They ask the committee to confirm that Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France and Turkey are partly responsible for the climate crisis and thus violate children's rights. The legal ground for the complaint is the Third Additional Protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to the so-called individual complaints procedure. You can find more information here.
The case Juliana vs. United States: In 2015, 21 young people, with the support of the organisation Our Children's Trust in the USA, filed a complaint against the US government on the grounds that the latter has contributed significantly to global warming in recent years, thereby violating the fundamental rights of the younger generations. You can find more information here.
The "Urgenda Climate Case" of the organisation Urgenda with 886 individual plaintiffs - among them many young people - against the Dutch government was the first in the world in which citizens stated that their government is legally obliged to prevent climate change. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs on 20 December 2019. The ruling called on the government to take more effective action against climate change without any delays. More information about the Urgenda climate case can be foundhere.
Following the success of the Urgenda climate case, citizens around the world are suing their governments for inadequate climate policies. The case inspired climate lawsuits in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and against the EU. Information on the various lawsuits can be found here.
8. How can I support the young plaintiffs?close
There is no legal possibility to join the constitutional complaint as intervener. However, you can support the plaintiffs by informing yourself about the complaint, spreading your voice and campaigning for climate justice.
Germanwatch’s work is based on donations. You are also welcome to support the lawsuit by donating to Germanwatch.
Lüke Recktenwald is a real "islander". His family has been living on the North Sea island of Langeoog for four generations and runs a hotel and restaurant. Whether Lüke will be able to live and work on the island in the future like his parents is uncertain, as Langeoog is increasingly threatened by the climate crisis. In this interview he tells how he experiences the climate and health crisis on the island and why he decided to go to court to demand climate protection.
Anyone who violates another person’s fundamental rights by emitting greenhouse gases bears a double legal duty: First, to put a stop to this harm so that the (fundamental) rights of others are not undermined. Second, polluters have to account for the protection of those at risk as well as the damages that still occur. In order to enforce these legal obligations in Germany and internationally, Germanwatch supports three climate lawsuits.