Legal accountability for the impacts of climate change?
How Vanuatu and the younger generation are pushing climate justice into the forefront
Lena Dente, Senior Programme Manager, Energy and Just Development
Climate change is arguably one of the biggest challenges of our time, and its impacts are felt disproportionately by vulnerable communities around the world. Climate justice seeks to address this imbalance by ensuring that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are not unfairly burdened with the consequences.
One country at the forefront of the climate justice movement is Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. According to data from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Vanuatu’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were only 0.002% of the world total. However, the country is one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with rising sea levels, more frequent and severe tropical cyclones, and ocean acidification threatening its very existence. The 2020 Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch ranked Vanuatu as the fourth-most affected country by climate change over the past two decades, with an estimated 2,341 deaths and economic losses of $477 million.
In 2018, Vanuatu launched the Vanuatu ICJ Initiative, which called on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an Advisory Opinion (ICJAO) on the responsibility of states to prevent climate change and the impacts on the rights of people beyond national jurisdiction. On 29th March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on this issue.
The Initiative is spearheaded by Vanuatu on behalf of a coalition of over 120 nations including Pacific Island nations, which are also among the most vulnerable. This campaign led to the formation of the organization, World´s Youth for Climate Justice, which represents the voice of future generations in this important issue.
The Vanuatu ICJ Initiative argues that climate change is a threat to the fundamental human rights of people around the world, and that states have a legal obligation to take action to prevent it. The Initiative calls on the ICJ to clarify the legal obligations of states under international law, including the duty to prevent harm and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.
In addition to the rights of people currently affected by climate change, the Initiative also highlights the importance of considering the rights of future generations – that they are not unfairly burdened by the consequences from the climate crisis and that they have a right to a safe and healthy environment. Climate change is an intergenerational issue, and is an important principle of climate justice, recognizing that present generations have a responsibility to ensure that the needs of future generations are not compromised.
Potential International Impact
The Initiative represents a landmark moment in the climate justice movement, as it highlights the urgent need for action regarding the unequal impacts of climate change. It also is a testament to the leadership of young people and small island nations in the fight against climate change.
If the ICJ issues an advisory opinion in support of the initiative, it could establish a legal precedent for holding states accountable for their actions on climate change. This could lead to stronger international cooperation and action on climate change, as well as greater recognition of the rights of vulnerable communities and future generations.
Furthermore, this could lead to greater recognition of the principles of intergenerational equity and earth trusteeship in international law and that could have implications for a range of environmental issues beyond climate change.
World Future Council Engagement
Alyn Ware, Councilor and Co-Chair, Peace and Disarmament Commission of the World Future Council serves as an advisor to young leaders and lawyers working on the ICJAO. Alyn has been engaged in several ICJAO campaigns over the years. One of the founding Councilors of the World Future Council, H.E. Judge C.G. Weeramantry, Former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice, wrote a celebrated dissenting opinion in a case related to nuclear weapons, which may serve as a precedence that will inform this new effort at an ICJAO on climate change.
The World Future Council will continue its support for this Initiative building on its contributions in the areas of just development, the rights of future generations and highlighting future-just policies.
The 13th IRENA General Assembly
The World Future Council´s Energy and Just Development Team took part in the 13th IRENA Assembly in January 2023. The focus this year was “World Energy Transition – The Global Stocktake”. In contrast to the COP meetings where the energy transition is a part of the climate change discussion, the IRENA General Assembly is focused more directly on renewable energy and the energy transition.
The event brought together stakeholders from across the energy sector and across the globe to focus on elements of the transition such as gender inclusion, just development, energy access, and climate finance. Discussions ranged from the global policy level to more local solutions and challenges with global implications, such as were discussed within the context of Small Island Developing States.
The potential for gender inclusion and the framework and policies needed for a just transition in the energy sector were discussed in a plenary debate session. Upskilling, job development, and community development opportunities were just a few of the positive actions that will help move the energy transition toward being a just transition.
Obviously, ensuring that nobody is left behind in the energy transition is going to depend on climate finance. The IRENA discussions included important debates regarding the facilities, private and public funding, and investing vs lending as key topics. Importantly, the general consensus seemed to agree that the energy transition is coupled intrinsically to development, which is an important aspect ensuring a just transition for all.
Lastly, the World Future Council will continue to be part of the IRENA Coalition for Action. Lena Dente was elected to represent the WFC on the Steering Committee. This Coalition works in collaboration with other energy transition organizations from across the globe to advise IRENA and to help shape the public dialogue on renewable energy.
Picture of Rabia Ferroukhi, Director, Knowledge, Policy and Finance Centre, IRENA
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The term just transition is on everybody’s lips. But what does it actually mean?
“We are living in a crisis” – a sentence often heard in 2020, and an understatement. The truth is that we are living in a world full of crises: health, democracy, biodiversity and climate have been in a constant state of crisis for the better part of the year, some of them for decades, and no end in sight.
World leaders identify solutions and call for immediate action
Hamburg / Cairo, 16.9.2019.
On the eve of the biggest global “Fridays for Future” youth strike for climate, the World Future Council offers its strong support to the dedicated young people holding leaders accountable for their climate commitments. If we are to meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris agreement bold action needs to happen now.
PR: Global Renewables Congress to be launched at UN Climate Conference
Hamburg/Katowice, 10 December 2018 – The 24th UN Climate Conference (COP24) is underway in Katowice, Poland (2-14 December). After countless unusual weather events have wreaked havoc all over the globe this year, this round of climate change negotiations comes at a critical time. Implementing far-reaching changes to our societies to cut carbon and phase-out fossil fuels has become inevitable. Against this backdrop, the Global Renewables Congress (GRC) will be launched on December 11 on the sidelines of COP24. The GRC is a new cross-country, cross-party platform for ongoing dialogue between and with legislators for the rapid and large-scale deployment of renewable energy solutions. Current and former legislators from national and regional parliaments can become members of the GRC. The GRC is chaired by Bärbel Höhn, former MP of the German Bundestag and acting Commissioner for Energy Reform in Africa for the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Only a swift transition to renewable energies can halt climate crisis and save us from its devastating impacts”, states Bärbel Höhn. “We must deliver renewables at scale. In order to stand a chance of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of climate crisis, renewable energy solutions need to be deployed more widely and rapidly than ever before. The GRC has great potential to advance them on a global level.”
Co-Chairs are appointed representing each of the major regions of the world. The World Future Council provides the secretariat of the GRC.
“A series of recent reports, including the IPCC 1.5 Special Report, makes it clear that we are nowhere near on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement”, argues Rob van Riet, Director of the Climate Energy Programme at the World Future Council. “The good news is that a clean energy transition is technologically feasible, and that it can act as a catalyst for achieving the Agenda 2030; the bad news is that political will still falters and vested interests resist this transformation of our energy system. The GRC aims for the rapid and large-scale deployment of renewables and I am optimistic it will bring decision-makers together to create the synergies needed for this process.”
The GRC is made possible through the support of the German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt/DBU) and the Stiftung Mercator. Additional support for this project was made available by Mr. Amir Roughani, Ambassador for the World Future Council.
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About the World Future Council
The World Future Council (WFC) works to pass on a healthy planet and fair societies to our children and grandchildren. To achieve this, we focus on identifying and spreading effective, future-just policy solutions and promote their implementation worldwide. Jakob von Uexkull, the Founder of the Alternative Nobel Prize, launched the World Future Council in 2007. We are an independent, non-profit organisation under German law and finance our activities from donations. For information visit www.worldfuturecouncil.org
„We need a citizen-oriented energy supply“
The energy transition can only succeed if energy supply is democratised. We talked to Uli Ahlke, head of the district office for climate protection and sustainability in Steinfurt (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany), about success factors of community energy.
Citizens contribute significantly to the energy transition. Including farmers, individuals own about 42% of all renewable energy installations in Germany. Unfortunately though, the German federal government does not support community energy sufficiently. At this point, local governments can make a decisive contribution to promoting community energy. The German District of Steinfurt, near the Dutch border, is setting an exemplary path. Its 24 municipalities with about 445,000 inhabitants aim to be energy self-sufficient through renewable energies by 2050 – with the greatest possible participation of the local population. Already today more than 60% of the electricity stems from renewables. We talked to Uli Ahlke, head of the district office for climate protection and sustainability, about strategies and possibilities for local authorities to support community energy, about dealing with national obstacles, and about the future of the energy transition.
Community Energy: Energy Transition
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Coalition for Action describes community energy as “the economic and operational participation and/or ownership by citizens or members of a defined community in a renewable energy project” – regardless of size and scope of the project. Community energy is any combination of at least two of the following elements: Local stakeholders own more than half or all shares of a renewable energy project; voting control rests with a community-based organisation; and the majority of social and economic benefits are decentralised locally.
World Future Council: The district of Steinfurt aims to be energy self-sufficient through renewable energies by 2050. Supporting community energy is an integral part of your work. Why did you choose to support community energy to promote the expansion of renewables rather than focusing on large-scale investments?
Uli Ahlke: We have conducted several surveys in our region, and we know that the balance sheet energy self-sufficiency can only be accomplished once we operate in a regionally decentralised manner – and that it won’t work without the citizens. About 18 years ago, we experienced a very intensive expansion of wind energy with a lot of foreign investors in our region. At that time, we quickly reached acceptance limits.
We are convinced that we cannot achieve our ambitious goals without wind energy. That is why we asked ourselves what we need to do to maintain acceptance for a new expansion momentum. We needed to involve people in the planning process and to give the local community the opportunity to participate in local value creation. After all, the district of Steinfurt spends 1.5 billion euros a year on energy – for electricity, heat and mobility energy. Money we want to keep in the region.
How exactly can community energy be integrated into local climate action planning, and which participation mechanisms were particularly effective in Steinfurt?
What we do here is only possible because we have this team. We are 22 employees who take charge of the region’s sustainable development, of rural development, climate protection and education for sustainable development. Structurally, we consolidated the whole procedure last year and founded an association – the “energieland2050”. We communicate through traditional media, but are increasingly active in social media; we organise broad-scale participation proceedings; we place a strong focus on the regional advantages; and we have many amplifiers, especially on the part of the wind farmers.
As part of the wind energy expansion, we have set guidelines for all upcoming civic wind farms – in cooperation with the property owners, i.e. the farmers, with the farmers’ association, the municipal utilities and our 24 mayors. These guidelines not only guarantee the involvement of citizens, but also ensure that the first focal point for loans are local banks, and for energy marketing the municipal utilities. For the recruitment of financial resources through public participation we organised three events for one wind farm alone, attended by around 900 people. Two weeks later, we had 30 million euros, although we only needed 15.
In 2011, we set up a “Wind Energy Service Station”. There, we have a colleague, who deals with conflict management. She talks to the people and seeks solutions with them whenever there is a problem. We also launched a “Wind Energy Round Table”, where we regularly invite all stakeholders involved in wind energy to address conflicts openly and transparently.
But wind energy is just one piece of the puzzle. Our goal is to initiate climate action in the region, involving more and more people. Many people trust us; that we practice what we preach, that we do things well, and that we act in accordance with the Agenda 21. But that did not come out of the blue – it emerged over the years, during which people got to know each other, and learned to trust each other. I also believe that sustainability and regionalism are closely interlinked because we give up anonymity and work with people we know.
I agree with you. How do you deal with national legal and regulatory obstacles to citizen-owned renewable energy installations at the local level, such as the 2017 Renewable Energies Act (EEG) Amendment?
I believe that the energy transition can only succeed if there is – in Hermann Scheer’s words – the “democratisation of energy supply”. The 2017 EEG Amendment, however, weakened the community energy movement. The reason for this weakening is presumably an energy policy that is geared towards corporations. But we need a policy that is citizen-oriented. The corporation-oriented policy actually prevents a successful energy transition. I am following Berlin’s energy policy with concern. If we do not change course very quickly, we will certainly miss the 2-degree target.
The approach we chose in Steinfurt is characterised by our energetic imperative “regional – decentralised – CO2-neutral”. This is supported and accompanied by the “energieland2050 network of entrepreneurs”. Only responsible companies from the region are involved in this network.
A study by the Leuphana University of Lüneburg has shown that the main obstacle to initiate community energy projects are the availability of equity capital and access to vacant space for renewable energy installations like wind turbines. How can local authorities help in these areas?
At the beginning, we conducted a study to identify our potentials for the wind energy expansion. We must not forget that our region is not particularly suitable for wind energy; we are not a coastal region and are partially suburbanised. On the basis of the potential study, we developed the guidelines for civic wind energy together with the farmers’ association, the mayors and many other stakeholders. This accelerated the expansion of wind energy. We implemented the wind energy expansion with regional stakeholders and did not rely on any external project planner or consultant. The expansion was also largely financed from the region – from its citizens, and its local banks. This is a relatively unique approach in Germany.
When we started to address wind energy with some actors in 2010 and even approached it strategically, people were very sceptical. And today I look back very relaxed and say: It worked!
I am glad to hear that. Let us now come to the last question. You have been working with passion for many years in this area. Which advice can you give to people in local governments not to lose patience and confidence in their work for renewables and citizen participation?
What you need is perseverance, patience and the faculty of abstraction. Human beings are often too impatient and cannot imagine the world changing but it is changing faster than ever. I think that in order to win people it is not enough to have good arguments, but it is important to draw a picture, a future scenario, of where you want to go and how positive the future can look like. At the end of my speeches, I often show a picture of the district of Steinfurt, which says: “District of Steinfurt – 24 health resorts”. If the energy transition succeeds, we will breathe clean air and it will be quieter. So if it succeeds, and I suppose that it does succeed at least partially, then life becomes more enjoyable and we get out of the air pollution dilemma which we are in now.
Interview conducted by Nele Kress.
 IRENA Coalition for Action (2018). Community Energy. Broadening the Ownership of Renewables. https://bit.ly/2MCevv9 (28.08.2018).
 Agentur für Erneuerbare Energien (2018). Bürgerenergie bleibt Schlüssel für erfolgreiche Energiewende. https://bit.ly/2nztV4q (28.08.2018).
 Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the United Nations system, governments, and major groups in every area in which human beings impact on the environment. It was adopted by 172 governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
 The Renewable Energies Act (EEG), which came into force for the first time in 2000, is the central control instrument for the expansion of renewable energies in the field of electricity in Germany. The fundamental changes of the last major amendment to the EEG in 2017 relate to compulsory direct marketing and a fundamental system change from the feed-in tariff model to the tendering procedure. This model has been criticized for failing to meet the climate protection goals of the Paris Agreement and for discriminating against community energy projects.