Green groups have taken Royal Dutch Shell to court in the Netherlands, in a case testing whether the Paris Agreement can be used to force oil companies to radically change their business model.
Campaigners say that Shell is breaching its international climate obligations and threatening the lives of these citizens by continuing to invest billions of dollars each year in the production of fossil fuels.
Seven environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth the Netherlands, also known as Milieudefensie, filed the lawsuit against Shell in April last year, on behalf of over 17,000 Dutch citizens.
They are demanding that Shell cut its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050, compared to 2019 levels, in line with the toughest 1.5C temperature limit in the Paris pact. This would force one of the world’s largest energy companies to quickly phase down production of oil and gas and invest in clean energy sources instead.
Four public hearings took place in December in the district court of the Hague, where Shell has its headquarters, concluding on Thursday. A verdict is expected in May next year.
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Campaigners have built their case on a precedent set by the ‘Urgenda case’, a major climate lawsuit taken to the top of the Netherlands court system last year.
In December 2019, the Supreme Court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels, as its fair share to tackle climate change. The court ruled that the Dutch government was causing an “unacceptable danger” to citizens, for which it has a duty of care, by continuing to pollute.
The victory by Dutch environmental group Urgenda was seen as a landmark moment for climate justice.
“We are arguing that you can apply the same [duty of care] law to companies,” Sara Shaw, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth International, told Climate Home News.
Shaw said that while climate litigation cases are becoming more common, it is unusual for the plaintiff not to claim financial damages and focus instead on setting a future course of action.
Shell argues that climate policy should be set by governments, not companies and that forcing one energy firm to cut back on oil and gas will only have a minor impact as long as others continue to produce fossil fuels.
“The judge should not intervene with Shell’s policy. It would also be unfair to force one company to take certain climate action if states and consumers do not do so or do so insufficiently,” a lawyer for Shell told the court.
Unlike the Dutch government, Shell is not a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement. But campaigners argue that Shell should help countries achieve Paris goals and accuse the company of violating human rights by undermining global efforts to keep temperature rises below 1.5C.
“Shell’s policies put it on a collision course with international climate agreements,” said Roger Cox, the lawyer representing the group of campaigners. “It is clear that Shell’s policies continue to pose a major threat to the environment and humanity to this day. A judge can put a stop to this environmental damage,” he told the court.
“It is impossible to achieve the Paris Agreement climate targets without regulating multinationals,” Donald Pols, chief executive of Friends of the Earth the Netherlands, told Climate Home News.
On the company website, Shell says it is aiming for net-zero operations by 2050, which does not cover the impact of customers burning its products. The company aims to reduce its carbon intensity, the amount of CO2 emissions produced per energy unit sold, 30% by 2030 and 65% by 2050, compared to 2016 levels.
Shell’s focus on carbon intensity is problematic as it allows the company to claim it is reducing emissions while increasing the sale of fossil fuels, according to Pols. “While they should be reducing their CO2 emissions, Shell [plans to] grow their production of oil and gas by more than 34% by 2030.”
Campaigners and lawyers say the verdict of this case could set an important precedent for other climate litigation cases relating to the Paris Agreement.
“Big polluters and fossil fuel executives should be quite nervous watching this,” said Shaw. “It would be great to see this spark a wave of climate litigation cases against corporations.”