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

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.


Jonathan Watts Global environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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