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Setting a legal precedent concerning climate responsibilty

It’s a remarkable story: For the first time, a person from the global south wants to hold a western company accountable for the impacts of climate change that affect him. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian smallholder farmer and mountain guide, has filed a lawsuit against RWE, the German energy multinational, at a regional court in Essen. He wants costs for adapting to climate change to be compensated. The initial hearing was in late November. The judges will announce on 15 December whether the first case of civil litigation against a major carbon emitter will go ahead.

Saúl Luciano fears for his family, his home and large part of his home town of Huaraz. It is located in the Andes and has a population of 120,000. Huaraz is threatened by flash floods because of glacial melting. The plaintiff argues that the Essen-based corporation’s immense emissions are partly responsible for such melting in the Andes and has thus contributed to his personal risk of losing his house, which is at the foot of the mountains.

Saúl Luciano requests that RWE contribute funding to safety measures at the lake above the city, which has grown larger due to melting glaciers. The payment he demands is proportional to the company’s contribution to global climate change.

“Every day I see the glaciers melting, and the lakes in the mountains are growing”, Saúl Luciano told Germanwatch, a civil-society organisation, which is supporting him. “For us in the valley, the threat is extreme. We can’t just wait and see what will happen.” He wants those who are causing global climate change to assume responsibility. RWE acknowledges that it is the top carbon emitting entity in Europe in history. According to a 2014 study, the company is responsible for half a per cent of the total emissions that were released into the atmosphere since the beginning of industrialisation. RWE is only one of many companies that bear responsibility for the matter, but Saúl Luciano wants it to pay € 20,000 for implementing safety measures in Huaraz, arguing that this sum is its fair share.

He raises further points, moreover:

  • The Andean environment and its people are severely threatened by climate change.
  • Climate change is human-made.
  • Big western companies are responsible and should be hold to account; their compensation money can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • People in poor countries can and should defend themselves.

If the case goes forward, it will set an important precedent. The legal difficulty will probably be whether the court appreciates RWE’s immediate impact on local developments in Peru. The judges have an opportunity to define corporate responsibility in tangible terms, enforcing the “polluter pays” principle.

I hope the trail goes ahead and gets a lot of attention all over the world. If contributing to climate change has financial consequences, corporate attitudes will change fast, and that would help to stem global warming.


Um die UN-Ziele für nachhaltige Entwicklung zu erreichen, ist gute Regierungsführung nötig – von der lokalen bis zur globalen Ebene.