The context for this question, is the recent court ruling about the nitrogen dioxide limits in German cities (An english article I found about it). Or this one written before the ruling, but arguably a better summary.

As I understand it, the lawsuit was about forcing the cities to impose more drastic measures (e.g. ban diesel cars from cities) to stay within the "self imposed" nitrogen dioxide EU limits. Similarly the countries that signed the paris climate agreement, imposed a limit on themselves of 2 degrees global warming. So in that light, can they be held accountable to that?

Because if you do some back-of-the-envelope calculations that is never going to happen.

Not sure how reliable the source is, but apparently a trillion tons of CO2 results in roughly 1.7 degrees of warming. Since global temperatures already went up 1 degree, that leaves 1 more degree (or 600 billion tons of CO2) if we want to stay within the target of 2 degrees. Since the EU has less than 10% of the world population (more like 7%) that doesn't leave more than 60 billion tons for the EU.

Using the CO2 certificate trading system I can estimate the amount of CO2 being produced over time. The number of certificates for fixed installations were 2 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 going down by 38 million every year until 2021 (Source). After 2021 it says the decrease is increased to 2.2% per year. Using the same base for that percentage as the 2013-2020 percentage (1.74%) that means a 46 million ton decrease per year (they want a 2.2% reduction but also say that the reduction is supposed to be linear so I am not sure if I understood them right here). This will mean that we will reach zero pollution in 2057 in that sector. The sum over all the certificates in that period tallies up to 50 billion tons of CO2. That would be fine, but it doesn't include the aviation certificates. And the fact that the certificate system only covers 45% of all emissions. Disregarding the aviation certificates, multipliying the total with 1/0.45 results in a conservative estimate of a total emission of 100 billion tons of CO2. Which is 60% over the amount of CO2 we can afford to produce.

Given how often I rounded in favour of the EU, they have no way of achieving this goal by this rate of CO2 reduction. And this assumes that the other pollution in other sectors not coverd by the certificate trading sheme goes down at the same pace. Which is unlikely in the case of aviation for example. Given the lack of technologies to have planes powered by renewable energy sources.

So can they be held accountable to their own commitment to limit global warming to 2 degrees? Similar how they are accountable for their own nitrogen dioxide limits in cities?

I am interested in a legal viewpoint mostly. But if you have other insights about this, go ahead.

EDIT (Clarification): I am not interested in accountability of one country to another. I know that there is none but transparency. But given that the EU signed this accord, could a citizen demand at a court, that measures are taking to actually enforce what the EU said it wants to enforce? Similar to how a citizen at a German court was able to demand that the nitrogen dioxide limits the EU set are actually enforced in the cities. And in this case you can also argue that the limits are set by the EU itself, and it could just change them. So in that sense it is also "self-imposed".

Thinking about it now, maybe this is the wrong stack exchange and this should be in a law focused one?

  • I am sorry I made you put in the effort, should have been clearer from the start
    – Felix B.
    Mar 9, 2018 at 21:32
  • 1
    I am talking about the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Agreement and if your reference is supposed to say that human made climate change is not real... Then I am sorry for you
    – Felix B.
    Mar 9, 2018 at 21:38
  • 3
    @FelixB.: the Paris treaty is a (non-binding) pledge. Mar 17, 2018 at 14:45
  • 2
    Well, considering that Climate Change Research worldwide will get in 2018 between 1 and 1.5 TRILLION of US dollars and taking into account a lot of the data that has been destroyed or falsified by AGCC proponents already It is a fair point. Please note I'm not negating anything - one look out the window says it is happening. As long as I remember there was never snow in UK for longer that 2 days (it is nearly 2 weeks now) and temperatures in March never dropped below 0 and stayed there. In fact, it should be full blown summer here by now. But you're right, it's not what you're asking about.
    – user10424
    Mar 19, 2018 at 10:06
  • 1
    ... and taking into account that nearly 100% of that huge pile of money will come from governments I will assume that accordingly nearly 100% of the research will find unquestionable links between human activities and AGCC...
    – user10424
    Mar 19, 2018 at 11:01

3 Answers 3


"given that the EU signed this accord, could a citizen demand at a court, that measures are taking to actually enforce what the EU said it wants to enforce?"

Could? Yes. Did? Yes. Won? Yes.

The case is Urgenda versus the Dutch State. Tn particular, they not only demanded that the Netherlands should meet its 2050 goal, they also demanded an interim 2020 goal (-25% CO2), and demanded that the Dutch government should be responsible for meeting this goal.

And while the UN deal isn't binding, the judge considered the EU consensus to be significantly stronger, and felt that the Netherlands should in turn be ahead of the EU. Hence the demand of Urgenda was awarded.

It was noted that this case was historical, as it confirmed that even non-binding EU intents are now binding on one of its member states. The EU itself is not a direct signatory of the Paris climate treaty (it can't be, it's not a UN member state) but its member states decided to stick together and ratify the Paris treaty as a bloc. That still leaves it a non-binding UN treaty and not an EU treaty.

Still, the decision is not final yet - the Dutch government has appealed the verdict. As as the Dutch Supreme Court confirmed in 2003 ("Waterpakt" case"), EU states have a separation of executive and judicial powers. Judges cannot dictate political action. It may very well turn out that the particular judge was a lone wolf.

A further reason why victory is unlikely is that the EU did impose lesser binding obligations, for instance with respect to minimum energy efficiency and energy efficiency labeling. The fact that some lesser requirements are specifically binding makes it clear that others are not.

  • "Won? Yes" as you note yourself, it's still in appeal, and likely to be overturned.
    – Sjoerd
    Mar 19, 2018 at 20:48
  • All well and nice, but it doesn't answer the question: it is again local matter. It would be an answer if Urgenda took European Commission to court, not Kingdom of Netherlands. And yes, EU signed the accord. See here: unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9444.php.
    – user10424
    Mar 20, 2018 at 9:21
  • This tries to answer the question better than most other answers - A way to improve it would be to give a bit more detail about legal chances of this succeeding or failing. And if it is applicable on other nations within the EU. But this is certainly the current candidate for the bounty. But since that still runs for 4 days I will leave it for a bit ;-)
    – Felix B.
    Mar 20, 2018 at 20:12
  • It should be noted that the question "can a citizen demand measures" is technically a question about standing. The judge could have rejected to even hear the demand.
    – MSalters
    Mar 21, 2018 at 8:11
  • @AcePL: I'm pretty sure that it wasn't the Kingdom of the Netherlands that was sued; only one of its four constituent countries is an EU member (only The Netherlands, not any of the Dutch Antilles). Suing the EU is pretty unlikely in such matters. For starters, which court would accept the suit?
    – MSalters
    Mar 21, 2018 at 8:15

Your question raises two distinct and only superficially connected issues.

Germany banning diesels in the cities is purely local issue, which local authorities should have the exclusive right to do. There is no doubt that older diesels are serious pollutants (especially in regards to NOx and particulates), but this is not so in the case of newer models. Latest tests show that new diesel models emit less nitrous oxides than petrol cars (between TWO and SIX times less, depending)...

But how you stack the deck matters: for example Electric Vehicles are said to be twice as clean as ICE (you ask: WHAT? Inconceivable! Shouldn't they be "clean" clean? Well, no, they aren't.), but not one research includes production of the batteries to pollution, while they happily add the refinement of crude oil and cost of it's extraction and transport for Petrols and Diesels. Stacking the deck is the name of the game. So we'll see how well that ruling holds up and for how long.

Second question is about legal consequences of not achieving the 2 degrees C increase limit by 2030, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement. EU internally is enforcing emissions with ETS and other regulations, but they are focused primarily on reductions of various types and levels accepted unilaterally by EU, well before PA (or even preceding it Lima Agreements). And as the PA itself is a non-binding pledge there are no consequences for failing to reach the stated goal. Thus even when PA has been incorporated into EU regulations (largely as-is), it logically follows that since the Agreement provides no consequences for failure then EU will not bear any.

Additionally, I've quickly reviewed the more pertinent legislation of the EU on combating global warming (this is the wording of those regulations, so I guess they did not get the memo that this is now Climate Change, not AGW), there are no provisions on them not having the desired effect, only consequences for Member States to not reaching agreed levels.

On a more personal level I'm of the opinion that the PA's content, which provides for some countries to completely not limit their emissions, and absolute lack of any provisions in case of it failing to reach the agreed targets, as well as it's very careful wording to that effect was entirely intentional. That and the fact that somebody in EU leadership could be even remotely responsible for economic disaster it will create with absolute no effect whatsoever (or they will hijack the cooling trend the Earth is experiencing (for last 5000 years or so), for their own victory).

  • "Latest tests show that new diesel models emit less nitrous oxides than petrol cars" - Is this with or without the Dieselgate-related shenanigans? At this point it no longer matters IMO. Dieselgate killed diesel, because nobody in their right mind will trust car manufacturers again on the topic. Mar 19, 2018 at 19:53
  • @DenisdeBernardy I prefer to have a car that adapts to the circumstances and adjusts its settings, which is what those diesels did. The problem lies with the tests, which were too easy to tell apart from a real world usage.
    – Sjoerd
    Mar 19, 2018 at 20:50
  • @DenisdeBernardy - they tested late 2017 models - VW, BMW, Mercedes for diesels, Ford, Renault and I believe KIA for Petrols. So, after dieselgate. Please remember that those "shenanigans" made those cars cleaner that they would normally be in absolute terms, it's just that percentages were above norm. In my opinion it was the norms and tests that were "shenaniganed" and/or made impossible to pass.
    – user10424
    Mar 20, 2018 at 9:17
  • @DenisdeBernardy - Oh, and one more thing: diesels by design emit less than Petrol. Way less. And it was always that way. The issue is that Diesel emits also particulates (i.e. soot) and more NxO. Which is basically not that big of a problem (PM, NxO are an issue), as research shows that it's non-exhaust-PM pollution that's the problem... Like I said: tests are the real shenanigans, as well as norms.
    – user10424
    Mar 20, 2018 at 9:51

To note, the Paris Agreement has some binding clauses:

So, which is the case? Is the agreement binding or not?

The truth is that some parts of the deal are legally binding and some aren’t. The text is littered with modal verbs – should, shall, may, etc. – that carry different legal weight. Shall is the big one; it obliges countries to undertake that action. The Paris deal contains 117 ‘shalls’.

Source: climatechangenews.com

However, the binding elements tend to be in terms of reporting protocols. I.e. there is a legal requirement to provide climate change data.

Outside of these binding elements, the Agreement is not legally binding but the leading members hoped that it would be politically binding. That means that if the Agreement is not being fulfilled, then political pressure is brought to bear. What this means in practice is to be decided (see article 15).

The Der Spiegel article linked in the question seems to have a legal basis in Directive 2008/50/EC.

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