4 april 2018

4C Note: There is a broad overview of the major climate litigation suits in the U.S. in today's Inside Climate News

Shell threatened with legal action over climate change contributions

Friends of the Earth demands the oil firm move away from fossil fuels to comply with Paris deal

Jonathan Watts, Global environment editor, The Guardian, Wed 4 Apr 2018

The global flurry of legal campaigns against “big oil” has widened, with Royal Dutch Shell being threatened with legal action unless it steps up efforts to comply with the Paris climate agreement.

Friends of the Earth Netherlands on Wednesday demanded the Anglo-Dutch company revise plans to invest only 5% in sustainable energy and 95% in greenhouse-gas emitting oil and gas.

The environmental group said this business strategy would increase the impact of climate change, especially on the world’s poorest people and those most prone to flooding. It has given Shell eight weeks to shift to a cleaner tack, after which it says it is prepared to invoke international obligations, human rights treaties and laws on hazardous negligence.

Heading the group’s legal team is Roger Cox, who led and won a landmark climate case in 2015 that insisted the Dutch government should set more ambitious emissions targets.

“This is the first case we know of in the world that seeks preventive action from a company over climate change,” Cox told the Guardian. “We are not asking for damages. We want Shell to steer away from its current course and to get in line with the Paris agreement.”

Shell is one of the world’s 10 biggest carbon emitters. In its annual report last year, the company publicly declared support for the Paris climate deal. It has also outlined “decarbonisation pathways” to move away from dependency on fossil fuels, but environmentalists are frustrated at the glacial pace of change and the weak investment in renewables and carbon capture technology.

Friends of the Earth says the company should be held to account for the approximately 2% of the historical emissions of carbon dioxide and methane it has added to the atmosphere between 1854 and 2010. It has previously taken the company to court for the damage it caused around oil fields in Nigeria.

“Currently Shell and companies like it are acting like big tobacco in decades past by failing to take responsibility for the harm that they cause,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “Shell must now move on from its history of Earth-damaging fossil fuel extraction and play a major part in the transition to a sustainable future, to keep temperature rises to near 1.5C.”

A spokesperson for Shell said the company strongly supported the Paris agreement, “but we believe climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts.”

Given the vast discrepancy in financial resources, any legal battle between Friends of the Earth and Shell would be a challenge of David and Goliath proportions.

But Dutch courts have produced surprises. Arguably the biggest victory for climate litigators anywhere in the world was the 2015 ruling that the Dutch government’s plans to cut emissions by just 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were unlawful, given the scale of the threat posed by climate change. The court in The Hague ordered the government to raise targets to at least 25% within five years, although the government is appealing against the decision.

If the Friends of the Earth case goes ahead, Cox said it will depend on the legal duty of everyone in the Netherlands to prevent harm to others when it is reasonably preventable. The duty of public care was easier to prove against the government. It will be tougher against a private company, but Cox said the plaintiffs will emphasises that Shell has specific responsibilities because it has contributed to greatly to the problem of climate change.

Courts in other countries are increasingly a climate change battleground.

According to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia law school in New York, there are now more than 1,000 cases in the world. Most are claims for damages in the US.

In January, New York city announced plans to sue five fossil fuel firms – BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell – for their contribution to climate change, which has caused flooding and erosion in the city. Local governments in California and elsewhere have launched legal actions, alongside private citizens. Last month, a group of 21 young plaintiffs overcame a major hurdle when a judge rejected moves to dismiss their lawsuit, which argues the US government’s failure to curb CO2 emissions violated their generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

In the most prominent UK case to date, a high court heard the first climate challenge last month against the British government, brought by 12 citizens through a legal group called Plan B which has the support of the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Prof Sir David King.

Nasa scientist-turned activist James Hansen has called for a wave of litigation alongside political mobilisation because, he says, judges are less likely than politicians to be in the pocket of oil, coal and gas companies.


Press Release

Friends of the Earth Netherlands starts climate lawsuit against Shell

Amsterdam, April 4th 2018 – Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) demands that Royal Dutch Shell stops wrecking the climate. If Shell refuses to do so, Friends of the Earth Netherlands will take the multinational to court. Dutch citizens can become co-plaintiffs via Shell continues to focus on oil and gas extraction, while it has known for over 30 years that this leads to catastrophic climate change. That is why Milieudefensie has called upon Roger Cox, the lawyer who won the 2015 climate case against the Dutch government, to demand that Shell takes action.

Unique case

Milieudefensie announced this during a press conference in the former Shell headquarters, the A’DAM Tower, in Amsterdam. Shell has eight weeks to meet the demands laid out by Milieudefensie to avert a lawsuit. This is the first time that legal action has been used to pressure a company to change its business model to avert catastrophic climate change. ‘Many of us are doing their best to put an end to the climate problem’, declared Donald Pols, Milieudefensie’s director. ‘In the meantime, Shell continues to invest in new oil and gas sources. Shell, just like the rest of us, should take its responsibility to stop wrecking the climate’.

Curtailing oil and gas investments

In order to meet Milieudefensie’s demands, Shell needs to bring its business strategy in line with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. This requires Shell to cut back its oil and gas investments. ‘Oil and gas infrastructure usually last for decades’, notes Pols. ‘If the company does not cut back now, we’re going to still be shackled to oil and gas beyond 2050 and won’t meet the climate goals’.

All Dutch citizens can join this case

Any Dutch citizen who also believes that Shell should be held accountable for its climate destroying activities can join the case. Sustainable entrepeneur Lynn Zebeda became the first co-plaintiff: ‘We still have so much to do with so little time to turn the tide. This is a big step in the right direction’.

Dutch actor and comedian Ruben van der Meer is also a co-plaintiff in this case: ‘We can all contribute, but Shell could actually make a very significant contribution’.

Roger Cox: ‘Shell is on a collision course’

Roger Cox is the lawyer who will pursue the case for Milieudefensie. Cox, working with Urgenda won a climate case against the Dutch government in 2015. ‘Shell’s current policy is on a collision course with the Paris agreements’, says Cox. ‘It seems like Shell considers the damage it does to the climate as an awful but necessary evil. The law, however, opposes Shell’s view. Shell was informed in the liability letter that was sent today, that the company has a legal duty to bring its policy in line with the Paris climate agreements’.

Shell’s deeds are not as green as their words

Shell does too little to prevent dangerous climate change. Shell’s plans show that it only wants to invest some 5% in the coming years in ‘New Energies’ (sustainable energy). Meanwhile, 95% goes toward exacerbating the problem, meaning the extraction and production of even more oil and gas sources. ‘Shell has known about the disastrous consequences of its oil and gas activities for over thirty years’, Pols points out. ‘Nevertheless, the company continues to focus on oil and gas production’.

In the media, Shell has indicated that it supports the Paris climate agreement. ‘Unfortunately, Shell does not walk the talk’, Pols laments. ‘The sustainable deeds make up only a fraction of Shell’s global business. Shell has failed to assume its responsibility on climate change; that’s why we are holding Shell accountable’.

Climate cases against companies

Milieudefensie’s climate case is unique in that it is requiring Shell to act in line with the internationally agreed-upon climate goals. There are already several other lawsuits worldwide that are attempting to hold fossil fuel companies, including Shell, accountable for their contributions to dangerous climate change, but most are focused on
financial compensation.

In January, New York City went to court to claim compensation from the five largest oil companies for dramatic climate change impacts, including Shell. Several cities in California have done the same. In addition, a Peruvian farmer sued RWE (a German energy company) in Germany for its contribution to glaciers melting above his village.

Milieudefensie is calling on all Dutch citizens to join the lawsuit. They can register as a co-plaintiff via

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