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Shell taken to court in the Netherlands: groundbreaking case against climate change

Friends of the Earth Netherlands takes the transnational oil corporation to court and demands “zero CO2 emissions” by 2050

“What we are doing is filling the governance gap by ensuring that multinational corporations, starting with Shell, are regulated through a national court in the Netherlands”, said Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie), in a press conference on 26 November. This organisation, along with six others (ActionAid Netherlands, Both ENDS, Fossielvrij NL, Greenpeace Netherlands, Young Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Waddenvereniging) are taking Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the parent company of the Shell Group, to trial. The organisations accuse Shell of being indisputably responsible for climate change due to its carbon emissions.

The climate case against Shell is backed by 17,370 co-plaintiffs. Pols remarked that this level of support from Dutch citizens makes him very proud. He highlighted that the legal costs (which amount to half a million Euros) were covered with donations from the Dutch people. “The general populace understands the urgency of climate change and especially in the Netherlands people are saying enough is enough, the Dutch government is not achieving its climate targets,” stated the environmental activist.

Public hearings are scheduled to take place on 1, 3, 15 and 17 December 2020 in The Hague, and a live stream will be available here [1] (in Dutch only).

“We expect the court to make a decision late Spring or maybe early Summer next year,” said Peer de Rijk, campaigner at Milieudefensie. The court could prolong the hearings until next year or demand both parties to provide more written evidence, and if Friends of the Earth wins “it is of course quite likely that Shell appeals”, stressed de Rijk.

The case was announced in 2018. At that time, Shell rejected any responsibility for the allegations. The lawsuit officially began when legal summons were delivered in April 2019, but in November that year,  “Shell rejected the demands and said that Milieudefensie addressed the wrong entity,” highlighted de Rijk.

“Shell is a British-Dutch company. Its headquarters are in the Hague in the Netherlands. Shell proclaims it will stick to the Paris Agreement targets, but it emits two times the total greenhouse gas emissions of the Netherlands and continues to drill for more oil and gas. Worse still, it has known that fossil fuels cause climate change for over 30 years,” reads a press release [2] by Friends of the Earth International about how they developed this groundbreaking climate case against the company.

Donald Pols added: “Shell in some way, without realising that, agrees with us on this issue: a year ago, the international CEO of Shell told the press that he is bound to its shareholders and that he cannot take the necessary action to reduce CO2 because he does not get the permission from its shareholders. In some way, we are helping the organisation by ensuring that the court decides that they need to take this action and that would be a counterweight to the pressure from its shareholders.”

An urgent demand

Pols highlighted that “It is clear that the urgency to achieve substantial CO2 reduction, greenhouse gas reductions, is increasing every year.” “We have to reduce our CO2 emissions by half in 2030 and it needs to end with zero emissions in 2050.” This target is difficult to meet, since big polluters (such as transnational corporations) are not included as the ones who hold the responsibility for reducing CO2 emissions, for instance, in the Paris Agreement.

“Shell is not doing anything to reduce car emissions – The only plans Shell has now to reduce CO2 emissions deal with what is released into the environment during production, not with the actual consumption of the fuel they produce,” states this report with 10 pieces of evidence that prove Shell is doing too little to stay below the 1.5 degree limit. [3]

“Our global economy is dominated by multinational companies that are not subject to any national regulation. We know that 25 multinational companies, oil majors most of them, are responsible for more or less 50% of all emissions globally and because of their character, they are excluded from regulations. That is the governance gap,” stressed Pols.

In this way, he questioned: “Would it be possible to achieve the climate targets as agreed upon in the various climate accords without multinational corporations, especially the oil majors, being included and ensuring that they reduce their CO2 emissions? And the answer from Friends of the Earth Netherlands is that no climate regulation is possible without multinational companies taking their responsibility, and, if not, then being regulated. We are really filling the governance gap by ensuring that multinational corporations, starting with Shell, are being regulated.”

This is the main goal of this landmark climate case: that Shell takes on its responsibility in the climate crisis and the global pollution caused by its industries, and for the company to regulate its carbon emissions.

“Shell may be based in the Netherlands, but its influence and consequences are being felt across the globe, particularly in the Global South,” highlighted Sara Shaw, coordinator of the Climate Justice and Energy Program at Friends of the Earth International.

She added that “this case is about stopping Shell from continuing its actions that are responsible for climate destruction. This is really important for communities around the world who are facing fossil fuel infrastructure being built on their land and on their territory, often not to benefit the communities, but for export”, like it happens in Nigeria [4] or recently in Mozambique [5].

Real World Radio asked Pols: “Considering the importance of the case: Will this set a legal precedent globally?” His response: “Shell will be arguing that their contribution to climate change and the global emissions of greenhouse gases is rather limited”. “But, we will respond to that by saying this will be a legal precedent, which will start a number of court cases against other multinational companies, other large polluters and oil majors. This will result in a global approach to limiting the emissions by multinational corporations and not only limited to Shell.”

“Helping to stop Shell from expanding and pushing it to reduce emissions really matters for those local people who are impacted by Shell and other big polluters, who will be forced to pull back from these projects and others like it around the world,” concluded Shaw.