International Conference on Climate Litigation as a Tool of Governance

On October 24, the International Conference on Climate Litigation as a Tool of Governance, co-organized by the Environmental Research Center of Duke Kunshan University and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions of Duke University, was successfully completed. Twenty-nine scholars and lawyers from Asia, Europe, South and North America were invited to the conference, which was conducted online and offline. A total of eighty-two students from Duke Kunshan University, Duke University, and other Chinese universities registered to participate in the conference.

Climate litigation has become a powerful policy tool for environmental governance. The number of climate lawsuits brought by individuals and institutions around the world has been increasing in recent years. Climate litigation cases have been widely discussed by scholars and the public, focusing on “the role of courts in climate policy making”, “the role of litigation in holding emitters and governments accountable,” and so on. At present, however, China’s domestic cross-jurisdictional and global dialogue on climate litigation as a tool of governance is inadequate. The purpose of this conference is to provide an academic platform for Chinese scholars and climate litigators to meet first-hand with international scholars and legal practitioners both online and offline. Through case studies and cross-disciplinary analysis, the conference focused on the potential and limitations of climate litigation applications in different legal systems, providing participants with opportunities to exchange on the latest developments in environmental litigation across various regions.

The conference consisted of a four-component forum session and a round-table discussion. The themes of the four-component forum were “Climate Change Litigation — Case Study of the United States”, “China – From Environment to Climate Litigation”, “Environmental Litigation in Developing Countries”, and “An Overview of Environmental Litigation in Europe”. On the basis of these topics, scholars and lawyers exchanged and discussed the judicial practices and academic theories involved in climate litigation under different political, economic, and cultural backgrounds.

Professor Patrick Parenteau from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy provided the keynote address for the conference. He first introduced the current state of human carbon emissions and the production activities related to carbon emissions from both the policy and economic aspects, and pointed out the fact that current human carbon emissions are still far above the maximum target needed to limit global temperature increase. In this context, Professor Parenteau presented five important cases related to the fight against global warming from a judicial perspective: the Urgenda and Leghari cases, Leghari vs. Pakistan in developing countries, Juliana vs. United States, which was related to the youth climate movement, and the Future Generation V the Ministry of Environment and Others Case, which was based on the “rights of nature” in Colombia. Professor Parenteau then described several actions against world’s largest oil companies in the United States and asked whether these cases fall under the jurisdiction of federal or state jurisdiction. As Professor Parenteau pointed out, we have had the basic tools and technologies needed to deal with climate change, but we are running out of time to act.

He ended with a piece of advice on dealing with reducing emissions in response to global warming for people:

“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”

In the sub-forum discussion about climate change in the United States, Professor Jonathan Wiener from Duke University hosted the discussion, then Professor Michael Gerrard, Professor Patricia McCubbin, Professor Jeff Thaler, and Professor Ryke Longest spoke about the status of climate action in the United States , climate litigation under the Clean Air Act, the public trust, and the role of youth movement in United States climate litigation. This round of discussions provided an overview of the development of climate litigation in the United States, reviewing the impact of various cases, issues, and legal arguments from different directions on domestic climate governance.

Professor Mingde Cao from China University of Political Science and Law hosted the sub-forum discussion with China as the topic. In this section, Professor Mingzhe Zhu, Professor Xiangbai He, Professor Hao Zhang, Professor Hui Wang, and Professsor Huiyu Zhao discussed climate change in judicial policy considerations, the prospect of China’s action on climate change, renewable energy integration with the limitations of the judiciary in China, the Supreme People’s Court judicial response to changes in climate change policy, and China’s energy policy in the context of the coal industry and climate change. This session talked about recent developments in public interest environmental litigation in China, with an emphasis on local Chinese cases that are similar to climate litigation in foreign jurisdictions.

Professor Coraline Goron from Duke Kunshan University hosted the sub-forum discussion of climate litigation in developing countries. In this section, Professor Gloria Amparo Rodriguez from Colombia, Asghar Leghari, a lawyer from Pakistan, and Aaron Pedrosa, a lawyer from the Philippines, presented a series of case studies and discussions on the “rights of nature” and the Columbia Act, climate justice as exemplified by practices in Pakistan, and climate litigation in the Philippines. This round of discussion provided an overview of the development of environmental and climate litigation in other developing countries, the specific challenges and opportunities faced by developing countries in the context of promoting judicial development, and local environmental vulnerabilities.

Finally, Professor Annemieke hosted the sub-forum discussion on the overview of European environmental litigation. Professor Gerd Winter from Germany, Dennis Van Berkel, a lawyer from Holland, Clementine Baldon and Hugo Partouche, lawyers from France, Professor Alexander Zahar, who is teaching in China, and Professor Marjan Peeters from Holland, discussed a case study and background analysis of the People’s Climate Case in Europe, the Urgenda Case, the Century Case in France, as well as Greenpeace v Norway’s “leakage case prosecuted as a human rights case”, and the complex regulatory environment for climate litigation in the EU. This round of discussion reviewed the latest developments in climate litigation in European countries and the EU. Introducing specific cases from the continental legal system and the EU judicial system, the participants discussed the impact of the cases on climate governance.

Professor Kathinka Furst from Duke Kunshan University hosted the round-table discussion in the evening. Doerte Fouquet from Fance, Peter Barnett from the U.K., Anna McIntosh from Canada,  Jinmei Liu, Xiang Liu, and Shengzhi Wang from China, Ivan Vargas-Roncancio from Colombia, and Asghar Leghari from Pakistan, formed a group of lawyers who discussed different types of litigation in detail under the framework climate litigation, including public and private cases, legal ways of solving environmental problems, how to use law to mitigate climate change, the challenges and opportunities in Canada’s oil sands climate action, the influences on and challenges of China’s actions on climate change, climate suits and air pollution, environmental disputes in the renewable energy project development, Colombia’s natural rights and legal system, and judicial tools and adaptability to sue in Pakistan.

Video recordings of this conference, including conference presentations and interviews with the scholars will be posted on the website for the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions of Duke University and the official website of Duke Kunshan University.

On the morning of October 25th, the lawyers Jinmei Liu, Mingzhe Zhu, and Shengzhi Wang had breakfast with the students. At the breakfast, students had face-to-face communications with these three scholars and expressed their opinions on “Climate Litigation as a Tool of Governance”.

Students’ thoughts


Zixi Mi iMEP’22

On October 24, 2020, I was fortunate enough to attend the International Conference on Climate Litigation as a Tool of Governance held at the DKU Academic Building. This international conference aims to provide an academic platform for exchange and sharing. More than thirty top international and domestic scholars and legal practitioners with first-hand experience shared their ideas online and offline. Through listening to the first-hand information sharing and the debates and exchanges between these big names in the field, I realized that climate litigation has become a powerful policy tool for environmental governance and has attracted extensive attention from domestic and international scholars. Moreover, while environmental litigation is gaining traction in China, climate change litigation is still a new concept. The discussion on climate litigation is conducive to promoting China to assume its responsibilities in international climate conventions and build a “green” and sustainable China. At the same time, we should pay attention to the different national conditions of each country, and when absorbing the successful cases of other countries, we need to comparative analysis and make proper decisions based on each nation’s condition.


Xudong Ren iMEP’22

This Climate Litigation Conference is a very valuable learning opportunity and experience for iMEP students. The opportunity is to get a direct look at the focus and challenges of climate litigation as a tool of governance in various jurisdictional bodies around the world, such as China, the United States, and the European Union. We could experience the bearing and knowledge of prominent scholars or lawyers in the field of climate litigation through face-to-face or online interviews. In addition, personally, I have learned three things: first, climate litigation represents an elite sense of environmental justice; second, climate litigation and climate legislation complement and promote each other. Finally, climate litigation needs to be based on scientific facts.


Wanhua Pan iMEP’22

At present, China and some other countries don’t have special laws for climate change and climate litigation in the true sense, some countries’ climate change laws are not perfect enough either. However, the attention of the public, and understanding the actual situation of climate litigation can prompt the government to pay attention to this area, to establish or perfect the relevant legal and policy systems, and to safeguard social interest. The existing successful climate litigation cases also provide some useful lessons for individuals or organizations to adopt more appropriate strategies or legal arguments in climate litigation. This makes climate litigation an important tool for improving climate policy and governance. With the concerted efforts of the international community, governments, individuals and NGOs, climate litigation can become a major force in the global solution to environmental problems of the future.


Pearl Dong   iMEP2022届学生

The conference has achieved its aim to bridge the dialogue gap on the issue of climate litigation across jurisdictions. It did this by bringing top scholars and legal practitioners from around the world together while opening up a forum so they could share their knowledge and experience on a wide range of subtopics. These subtopics range from the challenges of bringing up climate-related cases in China caused by the burden of proof placed upon the renewable energy generators to how we should incorporate indigenous rights into the governing legal systems. For students like me, it felt like I have finished a mini course on climate litigation coming out of the conference. As with all conferences, I want to see what changes will be made after this experience. 

Translation: Zhijun Ding

Proofreading: Remington Gillis