Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations

It may seem that, in the absence of explicit treaties, states have no legal obligations to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, if emissions continue on their present trajectory, the harms they cause will reach catastrophic proportions, putting the human rights of billions of people in jeopardy. International human rights law is legally binding on states, which are, therefore, not free to continue business as usual. But how much do human rights and other sources of law require each state to do to reduce emissions, even in the absence of a specific treaty?

A group of legal experts from around the world has answered this question, producing the Oslo Principles which set out existing obligations regarding the climate, along with a detailed legal Commentary that draws on the best joint interpretation of international law, human rights law, national environmental law and tort law. These documents may help judges decide whether particular governments are in compliance with their legal obligations to address climate change. The principles may also serve many other purposes, for example they may strengthen the bargaining position of poor countries by pointing to far-reaching obligations of wealthy countries.

  • Click here to read the Oslo Principles and Commentary in English (Eleven International Publishing 2015).
  • To watch a brief English video about the Oslo Principles, click here.
  • To read the principles in French, click here.
  • To read the principles in German, click here.
  • To read the principles in Greek, click here. 
  • To read the principles in Italian, click here.
  • To read the principles in Spanish, click here.

The principles were presented at the Dickson Poon School of Law in London on March 30, 2015, with many legal and climate experts in attendance, including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson. The launch of the principles was covered in the opinion pages of The Guardian.

On June 24, 2015, a court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government must cut its emissions by at least 25% by 2020, in order to protect its citizens from climate change. The environmental group Urgenda Foundation brought the suit on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, accusing the government of negligence for failing to create cuts in emissions in line with limiting warming to 2 degrees Celcius, the internationally agreed upon threshold for dangerous climate change. A group of Belgian citizens is preparing a case against their own government, and many journalists have predicted that there will be more Urgenda-inspired lawsuits around the world. Click here to read a press release announcing the launch of the principles.

The Oslo Principles were prepared by an Expert Group on Global Climate Obligations, which consisted of the following members:

  • Antonio Benjamin, Justice, High Court of Justice of Brazil
  • Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice and Director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia University Law School
  • Toon Huydecoper, Advocate-General of the Netherlands Supreme Court emeritus
  • Michael Kirby, Justice of the High Court of Australia emeritus
  • M.C. Mehta, advocate before the Supreme Court of India
  • Thomas Pogge, Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs and founding Director, Global Justice Program, Yale University
  • Qin Tianbao, Professor of Environmental and International Law and Assistant Dean for International Affiliations, Wuhan University School of Law
  • Dinah Shelton, Manatt/Ahn Professor of International Law, George Washington University and Law School, and Commissioner and former President, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • James Silk, Clinical Professor of Low, Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, and Director, Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, Yale Law School
  • Jessica Simor QC, barrister, Matrix Chambers, London
  • Jaap Spier, Advocate-General of the Netherlands Supreme Court emeritus, now Senior Associate  at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership; Rapporteur of the Group
  • Elizabeth Steiner, Judge at the European Court of Human Rights emerita
  • Philip Sutherland, Professor, Stellenbosch University Faculty of Law

Photo via Klem@s

The Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations have been complemented by the Climate Principles for Enterprises (Eleven International Publishing 2020).

For more information visit the project website and watch Jaap Spier’s presentation.