Shell faces a climate lawsuit in the NetherlandsShell faces a climate lawsuit in its home country of the Netherlands. Photo credit: Wikimedia

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By Karen Savage

Royal Dutch Shell has rejected demands from an activist group in the Netherlands that the company cut back on oil and gas production. It is the first step in what will become legal action by the group aimed at forcing the oil giant to reverse course on producing a product that is helping drive climate change.

Earlier this year, Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie sent a letter to Shell demanding it align its business model with the Paris Climate Agreement by immediately reducing fossil fuel production and eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Under Dutch law, that letter is required and Shell’s refusal means the group may proceed to filing a lawsuit.

Shell responded on Monday with a lengthy letter outlining its position on climate change, but refused to address the group’s specific demands.

“We do not believe these claims have merit; nor do we consider that the courts provide the right forum to advance the global energy transition,” wrote Linda Szymanski, company secretary for Shell.

Szymanski said Shell “welcomes and strongly supports the goals of the Paris Agreement” and pointed to the company’s recent report, called the Sky scenario, which “illustrates a technically possible but challenging pathway” toward achieving those goals.

Critics say Shell has failed to take concrete steps toward curbing climate change. A shareholder resolution to adopt emissions reduction targets was rejected at Shell’s annual meeting last week.

Roger Cox, attorney for Milieudefensie, said Shell’s business model remains at odds with the climate agreement.

“Shell reiterates the marginal steps it takes to protect the climate that we are already familiar with, but does not address what the legal action is about: stopping dangerous climate change,” said Cox, who successfully led the Urgenda Foundation case in 2015, in which a Dutch court ruled the government must curtail the country’s emissions to address the climate crisis.

Milieudefensie has registered more than 11,000 people as co-plaintiffs and is inviting all Dutch citizens to register. The organization is not seeking financial compensation but is demanding Shell stop contributing to climate change.

In 1988, a Shell report called The Greenhouse Effect estimated that its products accounted for 4 percent of global carbon emissions in 1984.

Estimates in that document—one of a trove of 38 recently discovered and released to the public by Jelmer Mommers, a climate and energy journalist for the Dutch news organization De Correspondent—mirror estimates in the Carbon Majors report, which was compiled and released last year by the Climate Accountability Institute and listed Shell as sixth in the world in cumulative greenhouse gas emissions between 1854 and 2010.

Shell spokesperson Sally Donaldson said the company has long recognized the challenge of balancing climate change and the role of energy in people’s quality of life.

“We strongly support the agreement in Paris to limit global warming to 2 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,” Donaldson said.

Milieudefensie director Donald Pols said Shell misunderstands the legal system.

“If companies or governments act in violation of the law, then it becomes a matter for the judge. People are now increasingly seeking justice for the pollution that companies like Shell cause,” Pols said.

“It is illegal to set fire to someone’s house. We believe it is also illegal for fossil fuel companies to knowingly burn our common home,” said Sara Shaw, a Friends of the Earth International campaigner.

“Today the global call for climate justice is growing louder.”