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25th Sep 2022

Legal battle over oil giant Shell's emissions begins

  • Climate activists argue Shell is violating human rights by expanding its fossil-fuel operations (Photo: Shell)

A group of environmental organisations on Tuesday (1 December) began a legal battle against the energy giant Shell, arguing current policies violate human rights by knowingly undermining international climate goals.

The British-Dutch company is one of the world's largest multinationals and one of largest in the oil sector, alongside BP, ExxonMobil and Total.

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  • Shell is one of the world's largest oil companies - alongside BP, ExxonMobil and Total (Photo: the_riel_thing)

The Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, Milieudefensie, together with other six NGOs and 17,200 individuals co-claimants, brought Shell to court earlier this year, demanding the company reduce its emissions by 45 percent by 2030 (on 2019 levels) and to zero by 2050.

The plaintiffs argue that the multinational is violating their duty of care and threatening human rights by expanding its fossil-fuel operations and investments, knowingly undermining the world's chances of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees, as agreed under the Paris Agreement.

"We are confident that the judge's final verdict will force Shell to adhere to international climate goals and stop causing dangerous climate change," Milieudefensie director Donald Pols said, ahead of the first of the four hearings taking place this month.

"The company has got away with greenwashing for too long," he added.

Shell previously announced it will stick to the Paris Agreement targets, reducing the carbon intensity of its products by 30 percent by 2035 and by 65 percent by 2050, compared with 2016.

However, according to environmental activists, that is "far from sufficient" since the company could achieve these goals without actually reducing its production and sale of fossil fuels, but simply by making additional investment in renewables.

Shell is the largest polluter in the Netherlands, emitting twice the total amount of greenhouses gas emissions as the whole country.

The 'Urgenda' case

The outcome of this lawsuit, whichever way it goes, will set standards on climate litigation in European courts.

The environmental group feels that the so-called 'Urgenda' case has increased their chances as it created a "historic precedent" by ruling that a failure to achieve climate goals is a human rights violation.

In this landmark decision, the court ordered the Dutch government to reduce its emissions by at least 25 percent by the end of 2020.

"[The Shell] case is part of a growing movement of climate litigation around the world. If successful, we expect it to spark similar cases in other countries against other companies," Sara Shaw from Friends of the Earth International told EUobserver.

"It also represents a huge amount of pressure on other oil and gas companies to change their ways to fall in line with the urgent need for a just transition away from fossil fuels," she also said, pointing to the fact that around 100 corporations are responsible for the majority of global emissions.

"We agree with Milieudefensie that action is needed now on climate change. None of which will be achieved with this court action. Addressing a challenge this big requires a collaborative and global approach. Shell is playing its part," a Shell spokesperson told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, the oil giant Shell has faced a string of European court battles this year regarding alleged crimes committed in Nigeria since the 1990s, ranging from complicity in illegal executions to systemic environmental damage in the Niger Delta.

Feature

Dutch case opens new era for climate-change litigation

Legal action related to climate change is set to grow considerably in the next few years - especially after a largely-overlooked ruling over Christmas by a Dutch court forced the government to reduce its emission by 25 percent by 2020.

Dutch court forces government to cut emissions

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment has said "this is the most important climate change court decision in the world so far, confirming that human rights are jeopardised by the climate emergency."

EU emissions down 24% on 1990 - but still off 2030 target

Emissions regulated under the EU's carbon market fell by 9.1 percent in 2019, although aviation emissions continued to increased. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to lead to "an unprecedented fall in emissions" in 2020.

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