“The Only Way We Can Hope to Overcome the Challenges of Sustainability Is by Working Together”


16 September was the second day of the international conference “Sustainability as a Constitutional Value: Future Challenges”, held at the University of Latvia. The third panel discussion of the conference debated whether environmental sustainability is a political choice or a matter of safeguarding fundamental rights.

Justice Dineke de Groot, President of the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, pointed out that individuals are taking legal action against the state over climate change issues such as greenhouse gas emission reductions, access to information, human rights, protection of biodiversity, etc. In these environmental cases, as in any other case, the courts must be impartial and independent, and must act with competence and in good conscience. The courts must consider these cases with the tools and knowledge at their disposal, drawing on their experience and exercising more or less discretion.

Helen Keller, Vice-President of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, acknowledged that climate change has indeed begun. Humanity’s impact on climate change is scientifically proven, and we must do everything in our power to prevent the catastrophe that is looming in the decades ahead of us. However, those who expect climate justice to be delivered by the courts are likely to be disappointed. The judicial process is not an appropriate way to find solutions to problems that affect society as a whole. Nevertheless, the courts do have an important role to play in tackling the climate crisis. They can provide answers to specific questions relevant to the legislator and the government. The only way we can hope to overcome this enormous challenge is by working together.

Fabien Raynaud, Member of the Council of State, Deputy-President of the Report and Studies Section, pointed out that in cases related to climate change, judges face two major risks: 1) the risk of being too cautious and thus risk compromising their role as the guardian of the rule of law and fundamental rights; 2) the risk of entering the political arena by basing the decision of the court on their subjective convictions rather than on legal reasoning, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the court. In addition, in cases regarding climate change, the judge also risks becoming a tool in the hands of politicians who would shift the responsibility for making difficult decisions onto the judge.

Anita Rodiņa, Justice of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia, stressed that ensuring sustainability was the responsibility of the decision-makers, i.e. the government and the parliament. However, the courts must also ensure that the principle of sustainability is respected, within the limits of their competence. Whatever the function of each institution, it is essential to think and act with respect for the interdependence of people and the environment. The biggest challenge is to find a balance between meeting the interests of current and future generations.

João Pedro Caupers, President of the Constitutional Court of the Portuguese Republic, recalled that the right to a benevolent environment encompasses both the negative obligation of the state not to unduly restrict that right and the positive obligation to ensure the exercise thereof. In other words, the state must not only refrain from harming the environment, but also take measures to improve its quality. Moreover, the right to a benevolent environment is not only a right of the State, but of everyone.

Rajko Knez, Judge of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia, agreed with the earlier statement that the challenges of climate change are truly epic. However, the solutions to these problems must stem from the natural sciences, while law can only serve as tool for their enforcement.

At the closing of the conference, Aldis Laviņš, President of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia, concluded that we need global vision to overcome the challenges of sustainability. And we can only aspire to develop such vision in international dialogue like this.

The conference “Sustainability as a Constitutional Value: Challenges for the Future” was held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia and the centenary of the Constitution. The conference brought together judges from the European Constitutional Courts, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as representatives from the European Commission on Democracy through Law (Venice Commission).