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A court in Holland ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent on Wednesday, in a landmark ruling that could have global repercussions.
The ruling by The Hague District Court could lay the foundations for similar cases around the world, according to the environmental organization that took the government to court on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens.
The court accepted the plaintiffs' argument that the government had a legal obligation to protect its people against looming dangers, including the effects of climate change on this low-lying country, much of which is below sea level and vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by global warming.
As such, its current plans to cut emissions by just 17 percent by 2020 (compared to benchmark 1990 levels) were illegal, it said — instead, it must raise the target to at least 25 percent. Climate activists in the courtroom cheered and clapped as the presiding judge read the ruling.
The case was the first case in the world to argue a government had a responsibility to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change under human rights and tort law.
"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," said a statement from the court.
"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."
Urgenda chairman Professor Pier Vellinga told the Guardian that the court's decision could have a massive impact on similar cases being heard in other countries. "This ruling is of enormous significance, and beyond our expectations," he said.
Dutch government lawyers swiftly left the courtroom after the judgment and could not immediately be reached for comment. The government can appeal the ruling to a higher court.
It remains unclear exactly how the court can enforce its ruling. It has the power to impose fines for failure to carry out its orders, but never uses such powers against the government and Urgenda did not request such a move, said judge Peter Blok.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.