Shell Faces Unprecedented Legal Challenge For Its Failure To Combat Climate Change

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Friends of the Earth Netherlands has announced that it will take British–Dutch multinational oil and gas company Shell to court if it does not immediately act on demands “to stop its destruction of the climate” which, if won, could significantly limit the company’s investments in oil and gas around the world.

Climate change and environmental advocates around the world are quick to point to the “trail of oil spills, gas flaring, water contamination, human rights abuses, and destruction” companies like Shell are responsible for. Shell is arguably guilty of many of these sins. In July of 2017, an historic report from CDP revealed that 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced back to just 100 fossil fuel producers, and that Shell was one of several companies ranked as the highest emitting companies since 1988.

I have made the case before that some environmental advocates take an overly naive approach to just what these companies should have done — the reality is, we cannot simply switch off our fossil fuel use without causing catastrophic loss of life and living conditions around the world. On the flipside, however, it is important to remember that companies like Shell have known for 30 years that fossil fuels caused dangerous climate change.

In Shell’s defense, it has been making significant moves to address its public image, by investing in clean energy and electric vehicle technologies. In January Shell acquired a stake Nashville-based solar owner and operator Silicon Ranch Corporation, was part of a $20 million investment in leading rural distributed utility company Husk Power Systems, which works in Asia and Africa, and announced a Power Purchase Agreement for the 69.8 megawatt (MW) Bradenstoke solar power plant in England.

On top of that, in November of 2017, Shell announced plans to cut the net carbon footprint of its energy products by around half by 2050, with an interim step of 20% by 2035.

But all of this, while decent for Shell’s public image, still falls well short of what a company in its position should be doing to combat the effect of global warming — specifically considering its direct involvement in said global warming.

As a result, Friends of the Earth Netherlands — with the backing of Friends of the Earth International, which has 75 member groups from around the world campaigning for “climate justice” — is threatening to take Shell to court “if it does not act on demands to stop its destruction of the climate.”

“This case matters for people everywhere,” explained Karin Nansen, chair of Friends of the Earth International. “Shell is doing enormous damage worldwide — climate change and dirty energy have devastating impacts around the world, but especially in the global South. With this lawsuit, we have a chance to hold Shell to account.”

Specifically, Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie), sent a Noticeletter to Shell’s Chief Executive Officer, Ben Van Beurden, with the subject “Liability for inadequate climate policy” on Wednesday. In opening remarks, the authors of the letter explained why they were “of the position that Shell, through its corporate activities and corporate strategy, is breaching its legal duty of care by causing climate damage across the globe and undermining the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.”

The letter is 20 pages in length (including footnotes), and concludes by claiming that, “In the interest of humankind, the environment and future generations, Shell will have to fully meet its social responsibility and duty of care.”

The aim of the legal threat is to force Shell to “remedy this unlawful situation by aligning its corporate activities and investment decisions with the global climate targets.” If Milieudefensie somehow manages to come away from this with a legal victory, they could successfully force Shell to significantly limit its investments in oil and gas around the world, and force climate compliance upon the company that severely restricts existing business.

“If we win this case, it has major consequences for other fossil companies, and opens the door for further legal action against other climate polluters,” continued Nansen. “Friends of the Earth International wants to see binding rules for corporations like Shell who so often regard themselves as being above the law, including when it comes to climate goals.”

This is not the first time that an environmental advocacy group has taken a company to court to prevent climate change damage. US cities San Francisco, Oakland, and New York have each taken a group of five fossil fuel firms — BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell — to court over their involvement in climate change and their long-hidden knowledge of the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate. Smaller efforts have also been made, and there are now hundreds of cases being brought against fossil fuel companies around the world.

This “wave of litigation” — as called for by environmental activist James Hansen — is certainly piling the pressure on, but whether or not it will yield anything significant and lasting, only time will tell. Not to be overly negative, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. The only thing that is going to force these companies to change is the impact to their wallet once they see fossil fuels continue to decline in use.

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Joshua S Hill

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at for more.

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