An activist lawsuit filed by seven environmental and human rights organizations, plus 1,700 Dutch citizens, yesterday landed a massive victory against Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell and its grossly inadequate fossil fuel emissions reduction plans.
The Hague District Court served notice to Royal Dutch Shell that its days of serving up the fossil fuels it has used to enrich itself while killing the planet need to be over very soon. Photo: Public Domain
The case, filed in 2018 in the Netherlands against local fossil fuel giant Royal Dutch Shell, demanded courts force enforcement of Shell’s responsibilities as delineated in the Paris climate agreement. Seven environmental groups led the case, including activist giants Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
While that agreement is badly flawed, with a major loophole in that most countries’ signatures on the agreement on carbon emissions have fundamentally no bearing on how companies within those countries act, plus the reality that the goal of keeping global heating to +1.5° C is impossible since temperatures are well past that point now, what the agreement did do is set policy standards for at least some countries whose courts seem to take the Paris accords seriously.
One of those countries where the agreement and tough actions required by the fossil fuel companies appears to matter is the Netherlands.
That was demonstrated when in 2018 the Netherlands Supreme Court decided in favor of a 2015 lower court ruling that the government must cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels.
It was proven yet again earlier this year, when in January a Netherlands appeals court directed Royal Dutch Shell to pay punitive damages for almost 3000 ongoing oil spills happening over four decades that caused death, devastating illness, and long-term environmental damage in Nigeria.
The current lawsuit was filed on behalf of over 1,700 Dutch citizens, who signed off on a statement that Shell is endangering human rights as it keeps pouring billions of dollars into fossil fuel production, despite claiming it intends to do something about increased fossil fuel emissions and global heating.
The company’s current plans – expressed solely as targets – are to reduce the “carbon intensity” of its products by a minimum of 6% by two years from now compared to 2016 levels, by just 20% by 2030, by 45% by 2035, and by 100% by 2050.
When Judge Larisa Alwin entered the courtroom at The Hague yesterday to reveal the ruling, few knew what was coming.
“The court orders Royal Dutch Shell, by means of its corporate policy, to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 with respect to the level of 2019 for the Shell group and the suppliers and customers of the group,” she said in her reading of the court’s decision.
Note that this is tougher in three ways than Shell’s originally declared targets. It moves the reference year for emissions reductions from 2016 to 2019, which means even if the percentages were the same they would still be more extreme. It forces the 45% reduction to be pulled forward by five full years. It also makes the achievement of that reduction mandatory rather than just an optional target.
The court did acknowledge in its ruling that Royal Dutch Shell is not yet in breach even of meeting its own target, and that the company had at least set some explicit goals for its emissions reduction efforts.
What the court did not accept was the company’s legalistic approach to setting those targets, with lots of exceptions in case one thing or another might happen, and that the targets were not firm. The judge said the enterprise’s climate plan was “not concrete, has many caveats and is based on monitoring social developments rather than the company’s own responsibility for achieving a CO2 reduction.”
“That’s not enough,” Judge Alwin said.
“The conclusion of the court is therefore that Shell is in danger of violating its obligation to reduce,” she continued. “And the court will therefore issue an order upon RDS.”
The court order is a tough one, with implications that Shell might not be allowed to continue operations if it does not take the necessary actions to comply. It does have one loophole, in that the ruling relates solely to absolute levels of carbon emissions based on current production and the 2019 reference year. That means that if the company were to increase overall production it could increase emissions even further.
The order also applies to all of Royal Dutch Shell's global operations.
“The climate won today,” said Friends of the Earth Netherlands attorney Roger Cox after the ruling was announced. “This ruling will change the world.”
Friends of the Earth Netherlands director Donald Pols said the decision yesterday was “a monumental victory for our planet, for our children and a big leap towards a livable future for everyone.”
According to the Carbon Majors database, Shell was the ninth largest carbon emissions polluter in the world in 1988-2015. The other eight entities above it were at #1 China (via its coal emissions), followed by Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia), Gazprom (Russia), National Iranian Oil Company (Iran), ExxonMobil (United States), Coal India (India), Pemex (Mexico), and Russia Coal (Russia).
In 2020, Shell was responsible for the dumping of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That number, down from the previous year’s 1.65 billion tons because of reduced fossil fuel use during the first year of the pandemic, still amounted to 4.5% of emissions from global energy production.
In a written statement released by Shell after the ruling, it is clear the company intends to continue to maneuver its way around the court decisions by whatever means necessary.
Shell said in its written release that it is currently “investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels.”
“We want to grow demand for these products and scale up our new energy businesses even more quickly,” it continued.
The company said it plans to appeal the “disappointing court decision.”