By Karen Savage
Royal Dutch Shell received an ultimatum from a climate activist group on Wednesday, demanding the company help address climate change or face legal consequences.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands / Milieudefensie, a national organization with 65 local chapters, delivered a liability letter to the Dutch oil giant demanding it cut back on its oil and gas production to align with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
“Many of us are doing [our] best to put an end to the climate problem. In the meantime, Shell continues to invest in new oil and gas sources. Shell, just like the rest of us, should take its responsibility to stop wrecking the climate,” said Milieudefensie director Donald Pols.
Under Dutch law, Shell, which is headquartered in the Netherlands and is one of the largest oil companies in the world, has eight weeks to comply with the demands or face a lawsuit by the organization.
“Shell was informed in the liability letter that was sent today, that the company has a legal duty to bring its policy in line with the Paris climate agreements,” said Milieudefensie attorney Roger Cox, who successfully led a case by Dutch citizens in 2015 requiring the government to curtail the country’s emissions to address the climate crisis.
In that case, Urgenda v. Netherlands, the plaintiffs were the first in the world to hold their government accountable for contributing to climate change. The case has inspired similar actions across the globe, including Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people are suing the U.S. government for violating their right to a safe and livable climate.
Milieudefensie is the first plaintiff to use legal action to pressure a company into changing its business model to prevent future climate change. The liability letter demands that Shell align its business with the goals of the Paris Agreement, which was signed by the Netherlands and 194 other countries.
“The Shell Group has long recognised the climate challenge and the role of energy in enabling a decent quality of life,” Shell said in a statement about the letter. “We strongly support the agreement in Paris to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius or less, but we believe climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts.”
According to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, the Netherlands is already being impacted by a rise in extreme precipitation events, rising sea levels, milder winters and hotter summers — all impacts scientists have attributed to climate change.
Milieudefensie is inviting all Dutch citizens to register as co-plaintiffs.
“If the company does not cut back now, we’re going to still be shackled to oil and gas beyond 2050 and won’t meet the climate goals,” Pols said.
According to the Carbon Majors report, which was compiled and released last year by the Climate Accountability Institute, Shell ranked sixth in the world in cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from between 1854 and 2010.
Cox said Shell’s current policy is incompatible with the Paris Agreement.
“It seems like Shell considers the damage it does to the climate as an awful but necessary evil,” Cox said. “The law, however, opposes Shell’s view.”
On its website, Shell acknowledges the urgency and expense of climate change: “Coastal cities around the world face a growing existential threat from rising sea levels as a result of climate change. In fact, a 2013 World Bank study found that global flood damage in large coastal cities could cost about $1 trillion a year in the future unless something is done urgently to address the issue.”
Pols said that although Shell has known about the disastrous consequences of its oil and gas activities for more than 30 years, it has yet to take meaningful action.
“Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.”