Shell taken to court over climate impacts and alleged human rights ‘violations’

Oil and gas giant Shell is facing legal actions over "slow" progress in reducing its emissions, improving its human rights protections and eliminating oil spills, with green campaign group Friends of the Earth's (FoTE) Netherlands arm claiming its current business model is "wrecking the climate".

Shell taken to court over climate impacts and alleged human rights ‘violations’

Shell is thought to be responsible for about 2% of all global carbon emissions. Pictured: Shell's Appomattox project in the Gulf of Mexico

In a court summons sent to Shell’s headquarters in The Hague, FoTE Netherlands claims that Shell has known about the negative climate and environmental impacts of oil drilling since the 1980s, but has “misled the public” by investing in “greenwashing” advertising and anti-climate lobbying in order to continue drilling for oil.

Listing around 17,000 individuals – most of whom are Dutch residents – as co-plaintiffs, the document alleges that Shell’s current climate goals and sustainability framework could threaten international human rights laws while failing to guarantee emissions reductions.

The energy firm’s overarching goal is reducing the carbon footprint of its energy projects by 2050. Since setting this target, Shell pledged to set shorter-term targets every three to five years, starting in 2020. Effective as of 1 January 2019, the first of these short-term commitments is to deliver a 2-3% reduction of the company’s overall carbon footprint against a 2016 baseline.

In order to deliver these results, Shell has been promising to set a science-based target since 2015 and has claimed that it “agrees” with the need to “transform” the global economy to achieve a 1.5C pathway, as per the Paris Agreement and the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark 2018 report.

But FotE Netherlands, along with Greenpeace and ActionAid, argues that the company is “continuing to undermine” action on emissions reductions through oil drilling. The groups are using the court summons to urge Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030, against a 2010 baseline, with a long-term aim of reaching zero emissions by 2050. 

These targets, according to the green groups, could be integrated into Shell’s business model without causing economic uncertainty. 

The groups have specifically highlighted recent research from CDP, which found that Shell was one of the 100 fossil fuel companies which have, collectively, been responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions since 1988. The research states that Shell’s annual carbon footprint is currently more than double that of the Netherlands.

FoTE Netherlands claims that if the court ruling is in its favour, it will mark the first time that a plaintiff will “prevent a company from committing future climate harm” rather than seeking compensation for losses which have already occurred. This, it claims, will set a “powerful legal precedent” for future environmental lawsuits.

“Inaction on climate change from governments and businesses is increasingly seeing citizens use the courts to call time on the destructive excesses of the fossil fuel industry and to force investment in sustainable energy,” ActionAid’s global climate change lead Harjeet Singh added

“Forcing companies like Shell to change their ways must be part of the transition to a low-carbon global economy.” 

Responding to the court summons, a spokesperson for Shell said: “We agree that action is needed now on climate change, so we fully support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower carbon future. We’re committed to playing our part by addressing our own emissions and helping customers to reduce theirs.

“Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach. We believe that smart policy from government, supported by inclusive action from businesses like ours and from civil society, is the best way to reach solutions and drive progress.”

A start date for the court proceedings is yet to be announced.

How are big oil and gas firms approaching the low-carbon transition?

Amidst a flurry of carbon and climate-related announcements from energy firms, edie recently published an article exploring the differing levels of climate ambitions among seven of the world’s largest oil and gas majors, and whether they are spurring or hindering the low-carbon transition. 

You can read that piece in full by clicking here

Sarah George

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