Royal Dutch Shell is a Dutch company which means it is subject to the laws of the Netherlands. On April 5, Friends Of The Earth Netherlands filed suit against Shell seeking to force it to address its role in the climate emergency confronting the world and all its people. The lawsuit includes 17,000 private individuals as plaintiffs.
They want Shell to reduce its carbon emissions 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and to zero by 2050. Both targets are in line with the Paris climate accords of 2015. According to the latest IPCC climate report, the only way to achieve those goals is to rapidly transition the global economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels.
Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said on Friday, “The IPCC has warned that window of action for avoiding irreversible and truly catastrophic climate harms is narrow and closing rapidly. Today’s suit against Shell sends a clear signal that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Companies that continue ignoring climate risks can and will be held legally accountable and financially responsible for their actions. Investors and corporate decision-makers who ignore this new reality do so at their peril.”
Too Little, Too Late?
Shell has made significant investments in renewable energy and EV charging networks of late and in its latest annual report it says it expects to lower its carbon emissions by 3% by 2021. But Friends of the Earth say it needs to do more and soon.
In an interview with Real World Radio, Roger Cox, a member of the legal team that initiated the lawsuit against Shell, went into detail about the legal basis for the suit. “What we are doing … is issuing a writ of summons to Shell. This is a particular unique case because what we are seeking here is a prevention of future climate harm, instead of looking for financial compensation for loses that have already occurred.”
He frames the legal argument as follows.
“Every citizen, governmental organization or company has a duty of care to fulfill in our Dutch legal system. This means in effect that nobody in this country is allowed to create danger for others if this particular danger can be avoided. And Shell can obviously transform to another energy company than a fossil fuel company, so it’s not obliged to continue to be a fossil fuel company for decades to come or for eternity for that matter. It can change. So it has the option to stop contributing to dangerous climate change.”
Cox points out that Shell is responsible for about 2% of all global carbon emissions, which is significant. He continues, “We feel that these kinds of legal cases are instrumental to accelerate the energy transition within the Netherlands at least and it will obviously also have an effect on other companies and in other countries.”
“We are seeking the same sort of response if we are successful in our case against Royal Dutch Shell, we also expect that that would have an effect on other fossil fuel companies, raising the pressure on them to change.
“Another point we are making in this legal case is that the consequences of global warming that exceeds 1.5 degrees will be so severe that it will constitute human rights infringements on a global scale and this is one of the reasons why we expect that courts would like to look into this matter and hopefully come to the conclusion that it is not allowed for companies like Shell to continue business as usual, therefore creating this great danger of human rights infringement later in the century.”
A Battle Is Raging
The clash of ideas and ideology caused by climate change and a warming planet will be a titanic struggle. But in the end it comes down to a simple question. Should corporations be allowed to make obscene profits from activities that cause physical and emotional harm to billions of people and threaten the existence of millions of species?
The answer to that question should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, but as Charles Dickens once wrote, “The law is a ass.” Similar suits against corporations and governments around the world have been filed. We now get to watch as those defendants and courts twist themselves into pretzels trying to defend the indefensible. It could make for a comedy worthy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were the consequences not so serious.
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