How South Korea’s landmark climate hearings could shape regional action

The country’s constitutional court is examining whether government inaction on climate change violates citizens’ rights. Could it set a precedent?
<p>12-year-old Han Jeah (centre) is one of 19 young people suing the Korean government for violating their rights by failing to act to slow climate change (Image: Youth4ClimateAction)</p>

12-year-old Han Jeah (centre) is one of 19 young people suing the Korean government for violating their rights by failing to act to slow climate change (Image: Youth4ClimateAction)

Environmental campaigners in South Korea and the wider Asian region are eagerly awaiting a landmark judgment on climate change from Korea’s Constitutional Court.

The court recently held its first public hearings to examine whether the government’s actions on climate change violate its citizens’ rights. The hearings were based on four consolidated petitions signed by hundreds of people. Three of the cases argue that the government’s goals to curb emissions fall significantly short of what is required.

The first case, filed in March 2020 by 19 members of campaign group Youth4ClimateAction, contends that the government’s climate targets and strategy are inadequate, violating their constitutional rights, including the right to life and the pursuit of happiness, due to the severe impacts of climate change on their lives.

The first lawsuit of its kind in East Asia, it was inspired by a landmark lawsuit in the Netherlands where campaigners successfully compelled the government to reduce emissions, sparking a wave of climate litigation worldwide.

In 2022, a second lawsuit was fronted by 62 small children, including a then 20-week-old foetus nicknamed ‘Woodpecker’. Their arguments mirror those of the first case, but extend to future generations as well as current ones. Lee Dong-hyun, the mother of Woodpecker, now a one-year-old boy called Choi Hee-woo and an older child, eight, told Dialogue Earth she thought about how her eldest child would be nearing adulthood by 2030, when the government had set itself the goal of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40%. “That is a very low target, which is why I made up my mind to participate in this movement,” she said.

The third case, brought by 123 members of civil society organisations, political party leaders and ordinary citizens affected by climate change, alleges that the government is violating their rights to life, happiness, freedom, property and a healthy environment.

It is not fair to place the entire burden of solving such a tremendous problem on future generations
Han Jeah, a plaintiff in the 2020 Youth4ClimateAction lawsuit

Campaigners have been waiting a long time for these petitions to progress. Since the first case was filed, the South Korean government and the national assembly have announced a target to be carbon neutral by 2050, passed a climate change law and strengthened the country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to include a goal of cutting emissions by 40% by 2030.

But, for some, these plans are not ambitious enough. The fourth and final case, led by 51 South Korean nationals, focuses on the country’s carbon neutrality plan – the first of its kind – published in 2023. They argue that it fails to measure emissions reductions properly and does not do enough to cut emissions before 2030.

Dissatisfied with the government’s progress, plaintiffs across all four cases point to Climate Action Tracker, an independent climate policy watchdog, which has rated  South Korea’s government action as “highly insufficient” in meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C. The watchdog particularly criticises the country’s efforts to boost its domestic share of renewables. Most of South Korea’s emissions come from the energy sector, which remains highly dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation.

The plaintiffs also submitted evidence from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, which in 2022 stated that the government had a “fundamental obligation” to protect human rights from the climate crisis and must take active measures to address it.

Public hearings and public testimonies

The hearings, held in April and May, were the first public events of their kind not only in South Korea but in the entire region.

During the hearings, 12-year-old Han Jeah, a plaintiff in the baby climate lawsuit, described how climate disasters are already affecting her life; in 2022, her house was flooded during torrential rain, leaving her terrified of a landslide. As she is under voting age, she said that legal proceedings were the only course of action available to her.

“I believe this lawsuit is a crucial turning point that will shape our future up to 2030 and beyond,” Han said. “It is not fair to place the entire burden of solving such a tremendous problem on future generations. If the future gets worse, we might have to give up everything we dream of.”

The legal teams for all four cases have been collaborating since the Constitutional Court consolidated the petitions. Youn Se-jong, a lawyer for South Korean non-profit organisation Plan 1.5 and one of the main legal representatives, noted significant overlap among the claims, as all argue that the government’s current approach fails to adequately protect their constitutional rights.

A group of people behind a banner holding placards and signs and chanting
Lawyer Youn Se-jong (third from left), one of the main legal representatives for the cases, campaigning outside South Korea’s constitutional court in Seoul before the first public hearing in April (Image: Youth4ClimateAction)

Government response and future implications

The South Korean government, while acknowledging the difficulty of achieving the current NDC, insists that national climate targets comply with the constitution.  Environment Minister Han Hwa-jin has publicly refuted claims that the targets are insufficient.

The plaintiffs are reasonably optimistic. Youn notes that the Constitutional Court only holds public hearings for cases it considers important and necessary. “The fact that the court selected the Korean climate litigation case for public hearing demonstrates that the court is taking this case very seriously. During the two hearings, we found the court’s questions to be very detailed and accurate, which shows that the court has delved into the scientific evidence as well as the international and constitutional jurisprudences,” he said.

According to Youn, a decision in favour of the plaintiffs would be the first national GHG reduction target victory outside Europe.

Interest in these lawsuits has grown, with press conferences packed with journalists. Talking through a translator, Lee said: “Of course we cannot say we are the only reason that society is paying close attention to this lawsuit or climate change, but people are talking more about the climate crisis in Korea.” The legal teams hope the court will reach a decision soon; the South Korean government has already begun discussions on its next NDC, and the judgment will play a critical role. A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could drive significant changes in national and regional climate policies, reinforcing the global trend towards stronger climate action.

“When we first started to file this lawsuit at the Constitutional Court, I believed that it had more of a symbolic meaning,” said Lee. “But after filing, this went beyond that and started making an actual change in Korean society.”

A broader measure of success will be the extent to which these cases influence climate litigation across the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Taiwan has a pending climate litigation case before its Constitutional Court. In Indonesia, 14 people filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission, claiming the government was violating their constitutional rights by failing to take sufficient measures to cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

In the Philippines, climate lawsuits were anticipated following the publication of a landmark report by the Commission on Human Rights into the human rights responsibilities of carbon majors. However, these lawsuits have yet to materialise.

The decision will accelerate transitioning away from fossil fuels in the Asian region
Mie Asaoka, Japanese climate NGO Kiko Network

In neighbouring Japan, where few climate-related lawsuits have been filed, none have been successful. The Japanese Constitution lacks environmental provisions and the country has no constitutional court. As a result, says Mie Asaoka, a lawyer and president of Japanese climate NGO Kiko Network, existing cases relate mostly to the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

She adds that Japan has a less active civil society, fewer institutional mechanisms for citizen participation and a weaker judiciary compared to South Korea. Additionally, Japanese courts are generally reluctant to seek legal guidance from other jurisdictions. Moreover, political relations between Korea and Japan are currently strained.

Nonetheless, Asaoka asserts that Korea’s Constitutional Court hearing these cases is a “boost” for Japan’s current and future litigation, given the similarities in the two countries’ climate strategies and Japan’s desire not to fall behind.

“The decision will not only have a major impact on the Japanese courts, which still do not see climate change as a human rights issue, but will also accelerate transitioning away from fossil fuels in the Asian region,” said Asaoka.

“The government is very much aware of the seriousness of the climate crisis, and through this case,  it opened a forum of public discussion, which is very meaningful,” a spokesperson for the South Korean government told Dialogue Earth. “Yet, it cannot be said that our reduction goal is unconstitutional since it cannot be proven it has directly caused infringement of the basic rights of the people. So it cannot be said  that our climate crisis response so far was clearly insufficient or inadequate. And what is much more important at this point is that we are determined to focus on implementing climate crisis measures more for the better outcome of the future.”