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Climate lawsuit

The first climate lawsuits celebrate wins

Around the world, more and more organisations and individuals are suing companies that are complicit in climate change due to their high emissions. The first victories are now being achieved.
Dutch students protest against Shell. picture-alliance/NurPhoto/Romy Arroyo Fernandez Dutch students protest against Shell.

In many countries, environmental activists are mobilising against companies and taking legal action to ensure compliance with the climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. In the Netherlands, environmental organisations achieved one of the greatest legal victories so far. They defeated the multinational oil company Shell in 2021. The court ordered the company to reduce its net CO2 emissions by 45 % by 2030, relative to 2019.

The Hague District Court thereby acknowledged that Shell has contributed substantially to global warming, which is having disastrous consequences for residents of the Netherlands. The headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell used to be in the Hague, but the conglomerate moved to London in 2022,  primarily for tax reasons. It renamed itself Shell.

Seven environmental groups and 17.300 individuals sued the company for its failure to adhere to the climate goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. And for the first time, a court is attempting to force an international oil giant to actually implement the goals outlined in the agreement, and to do so at the global level. Indeed, the court order applies to the entire scope of the multinational corporation’s operations.

According to experts, the decision was ground-breaking.  For the first time, a global company is being legally obligated to provide climate protection. The implication is that these obligations are enforceable.

Number of lawsuits is increasing worldwide

It remains to be seen how effective the court’s decision will be. Shell has appealed, and it’s uncertain whether the judgement will be upheld in the second instance. The corporation argues, among other things, that it is unjust for an individual company to be singled out, and that there is no legal precedent for courts to issue judgements against private companies regarding climate protection.

Worldwide, the number of lawsuits for greater climate protection continues to increase: according to media reports, around 1700 proceedings are currently ongoing, several of which are directed against energy companies. For example, in Germany in 2021, the organisation Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe – DUH) took  Mercedes-Benz, BMW and the oil company DEA to court, demanding, among other things, that cars with internal combustion engines should be phased out by 2030.

The DUH has brought several successful lawsuits against federal, state and local governments. In regard to Mercedes, the Regional Court of Stuttgart dismissed the case in September 2022. Now the DUH is appealing its decision in the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart.

The French oil company TotalEnergies was also sued by six civil-society organisations in France. The corporation wants to extract oil in Uganda and transport it via a pipeline through Tanzania. The plaintiffs state that the plans seriously threaten the local people’s human rights. Moreover, they violate the Paris Agreement. The case has been pending before the Nanterre court since December 2021.

Sabine Balk is an editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a freelance contributor to D+C/E+Z.

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