In a groundbreaking test-case judgment, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has granted environmental NGOs an extensive right to bring legal action against administrative acts having a significant effect on the environment. Its judgment brings to an end—for the time being—heated debate as to the standing of environmental NGOs to bring such actions which has occupied discourse in Germany for over 40 years. The judgement is also highly relevant for other member states' legal systems. The outlines of a uniform European right of action for environmental NGOs are now beginning to emerge. But even in the light of the ECJ's remarkably unequivocal judgment, crucial questions as to the details of the review of legality environmental NGOs may now initiate remain unanswered.
The Gerechtshof in The Hague has condemned the Netherlands to take measures to ensure a reduction of at least 25% of Dutch greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2020. The court thus confirms the first-instance Urgenda decision, which had attracted much attention worldwide and which serves as a model for a whole series of other climate change litigations, some of which have since failed, some are still pending or planned. Even bearing in mind the urgency of the climate protection goal pursued by these lawsuits, the idea of a world rescue through court decisions is ultimately misleading. It overestimates the power of the judicial branch and risks being lost in mere symbolism. Worse still, it shifts responsibilities and creates expectations that tend to further de-legitimize the constitutional democratic systems of the world and their concept of a separation of powers. Even from a solely environmental point of view, this constitutes a high risk, because there are no better alternatives of responsible government. Keeping this risk in mind, the fact that the specific “Urgenda”-decision is legally not convincing seems an almost minor aspect.