Shell faces a new climate lawsuit in the NetherlandsShell faces a new lawsuit in the Netherlands by groups demanding it reduce production in line with climate goals. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

Seven environmental and human rights organizations in the Netherlands announced on Tuesday they are prepared to sue Royal Dutch Shell if the oil giant refuses to align its business model with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The groups, led by Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie and joined by Greenpeace Netherlands and ActionAid Netherlands, have gathered more than 13,000 signatures from Dutch citizens backing the forthcoming lawsuit. If Shell fails to meet their demands, they plan to deliver a court summons to the company at its headquarters in The Hague on April 5. This would be a new legal approach in battling climate change, the first lawsuit to directly challenge the business model and growth strategy of an oil company.

“For decades, Shell has chosen to make big profits at the expense of the climate. Shell is deliberately obstructing the energy revolution that is so badly needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. We need to make sure that Shell takes responsibility for its actions and changes its destructive business model,” said Joris Thijssen, director of Greenpeace Netherlands.

Other groups joining Greenpeace and ActionAid include Both ENDS, Wadden Sea Forum, Jongeren Milieu Actief (Young Friends of the Earth NL), and Fossilvrij NL (Fossil Free NL). Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie is spearheading the action, which it began last year when the organization sent a letter to Shell warning of legal action if the company failed to cut back producing the fossil fuels that drive climate change.

That letter followed the public release of a trove of documents by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent showing that for decades, Shell has been aware of the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate. Like ExxonMobil, Shell had studied the problem and acknowledged the danger in internal documents, yet publicly downplayed the risk while funding climate denial groups. Shell even predicted as far back as 1998 that it could be sued along with other fossil fuel producers following a devastating storm, made more destructive because of climate change.

“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future,” a Shell spokeperson said in response to the latest action. “We’re committed to playing our part and have set an ambition to reduce Shell’s net carbon footprint, including emissions from both our own operations and from our customers’ use of our energy products. To demonstrate progress, we will set short-term targets for reducing emissions, linked to executive remuneration.”

“Tackling climate change—whilst also meeting growing demand for energy —is a complex challenge requiring inclusive action and collaboration. All of society has a role to play in tackling climate change and action must come from all sectors of the global economy. Tying up individual companies in a lengthy court process cannot replace policies that will encourage lower-carbon choices by all business and consumers. Sound policy, not litigation, is what’s needed to allow the energy transition to progress rapidly and at scale.”

This defense, that courts should not dictate energy policy, has emerged in response to litigation against Shell and other fossil fuel companies filed by local and state governments in the U.S.

But as the group of organizations points out, Shell is among the top 100 fossil fuel producers (dubbed the Carbon Majors) collectively responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

According to Milieudefensie, Shell produces twice as much carbon pollution as the rest of the Netherlands combined. An attorney for the organization, Roger Cox, led the successful landmark Urgenda lawsuit against the Dutch government, which convinced a court to compel it to cut emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. That historic decision marked the first time a court has ordered a country to take more aggressive action on climate change, and it has inspired a wave of climate litigation in other countries.

Climate and human rights activists in the Netherlands have now turned their attention to Shell, which continues to invest billions of dollars in new oil and gas exploration every year. They say that Shell’s business strategy is incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

“This court case offers a historic opportunity to break the power of climate damaging companies such as Shell, and to stop their damaging activities. It is unacceptable that multinationals like Shell are still slowing down the transition from fossils to renewable, sustainable energy,” said Liset Meddens, director of Fossielvrij Netherlands.

“The fossil fuel industry—and Shell in particular—is not taking their responsibility,” added Danielle Hirsch, director of the environmental group Both ENDS.

The claim that Shell is acting irresponsibly in the context of climate change forms the basis of the impending lawsuit. “Dutch law places Shell under a legal obligation to respect human rights and to act responsibly, in accordance with the applicable due diligence standard enshrined in Dutch law,” Milieudefensie explained in the initial letter it sent to Shell last year. The due diligence standard, according to the group, is determined by scientific findings and treaty provisions, in this case, the Paris Climate Agreement as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the European Convention on Human Rights.  

While Shell, like many of its oil industry peers, expresses public support for the Paris Agreement, its business model remains at odds with the agreement’s goals. It plans no retreat from its core business in oil and gas and puts forward only modest carbon reduction strategies. For example, in order to have a chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that carbon emissions need to reach net zero by 2050. But Shell says it plans to reduce the net carbon footprint of its products by only 50 percent by 2050, and delays any net-zero emissions ambition until 2070.

The Netherlands’ organizations say they are determined to hold Shell accountable for its role in driving climate-related devastation.  

“From severe droughts in Africa to extreme flooding in Asia, millions of people we work with are seeing their lives and livelihoods torn apart by climate change. Shell’s refusal to kick its fossil fuel addiction is sentencing them and many more to further devastation,” said Maria van der Heide, head of policy and campaigns at ActionAid Netherlands. “We’re joining this case because we want to ensure that Shell finally puts humanity’s future above its bottom line.”

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