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New Zealand Law Student Sues Government Over Carbon Emissions

A successful suit against the Dutch government has opened the door to more climate change legal action.

New Zealand Minister for Climate Change Issues Tim Groser. Image by January via Wikimedia Commons

When the environmental group Urgenda filed and won a lawsuit against the Dutch government, forcing it to adopt more robust climate change policies, someone down in New Zealand was paying attention. Following Urgenda’s lead, University of Waikato law student Sarah Thomson filed a lawsuit against the Kiwi government to force more stringent climate change action.


As New Zealand website Stuff reports, Thomson filed the lawsuit in the High Court in Wellington against Tim Groser, the government’s Minister for Climate Change Issues. She says that Groser has failed to set carbon emissions targets that reflect the latest science on climate change, and is asking the court to review the existing emissions targets.

Part of the impetus behind Thomson’s lawsuit is that Groser has committed New Zealand to only a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. The EU, by comparison, is setting reduction goals at 40 percent as part of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

Urgenda won its case in part because it proved that the Dutch government acknowledged its own actions on climate change as insufficient, thereby knowingly exposing its citizens to dangerous situations. As Urgenda explained, this is called a “wrongful act of the State” in legal terms.

“The Dutch Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that the government can be held legally accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm,” the group noted. “Urgenda argues that this is also the case with climate change.”

Thomson won’t be able to push her lawsuit forward on the back of a similar law in New Zealand, so she will have to win the case against Groser on different legal criteria. But as Thomson admits, even with international pledges for carbon emission reductions, the global temperature will rise by 3 degrees Celsius—and combating climate change requires a rise of no more than 2 degrees.That’s all the more reason to sue the New Zealand government, and presents an opportunity to press the issue at the upcoming climate conference in Paris.