With great interest, a lawsuit against Shell started this morning, which will last several days. Environmental Defense and six other organizations have brought Shell to justice because they feel that the company is doing too little to deal with climate change. 17,000 individuals have also joined the case.
This morning some of them came by bicycle from Friesland and Groningen to the court in The Hague, to hand over a donation to director Donald Pols of Milieudefensie. Prior to the trial, Pols stressed that Shell is the biggest polluter in the Netherlands and one of the ten largest polluters in the world. “If we get Shell moving, it‘s a revolutionary and important step in the fight against climate change,” he says.
In court, the lawyer at the Environment Defense argued that Shell is on a collision course with international climate targets because it emits too many greenhouse gases. It was also argued that Shell has been familiar with the problem for a long time, but has done too little about it.
According to Shell, climate policy is primarily a matter for the government. For example, Shell does not determine whether customers choose to buy an electric car, or in other ways try to reduce their emissions, the lawyer argued. Unlike a company, a government can speed this up.
The company agrees with Milieudefensie that the climate problem needs to be tackled seriously. But Shell already does a lot of things within the company’s power to operate more sustainably.
On his own, the company can‘t do any more. Harry Brekelmans from Shell responds. “We believe that progress depends on the interaction between governments, companies and customers. On a global scale and in coherence. And we think that this demand and this case do not contribute to it.”
The lawsuit against Shell is the latest in a list of lawsuits that is getting longer and has the attention of lawyers. Because whether Environmental Defence wins or loses, the verdict can have major consequences. Laura Burgers obtained his PhD at the University of Amsterdam last month on climate litigation. In the meantime, there are already about 1300 of them worldwide, she says.
Just yesterday it was announced that the European Court of Human Rights is going to consider a special new case. Portuguese children are targeting 33 states, including the Netherlands, because of their poor climate policy. But not only governments, but also companies other than Shell have to come to court.
Laura Burgers studied some of the climate issues in detail, such as the Urgenda case at home. The discussion was whether judges sit on the chair of politics when they express their views on the climate. But up to the highest level, the Supreme Court, it has been ruled that the climate is indeed a matter for the judiciary.
According to Citizens, this kind of lawsuits will also give generations in the future, as it were, a voice. Because science indicates that the climate problem is becoming increasingly acute in the future. “In the Urgenda case, considerable emphasis was placed on scientific facts. Urgenda has listed all these facts in dozens of pages,” says Burgers. “So it’s not just a legal story.”
Elbert de Jong, professor of private law at Utrecht University, also says that the question is to what extent arguments from the Urgenda case are also valid against Shell. “An important difference is, of course, that Urgenda called the state, and now a company. So you can‘t translate one on one Urgenda into this Shell case.”
However, the same arguments play a role in the background, namely whether human rights treaties and the climate agreement apply. “Another thing is the so-called unwritten standard of care. This means that you must behave socially appropriately and that you must not expose another person to unacceptable dangers. Environmental Defence wants to apply that standard to Shell’s climate policy.”
Whether large companies like Shell are bound to international climate agreements, even though they were not at the table, is an important question, according to both lawyers. “According to Milieudefensie, meeting the climate targets without Shell will not succeed. So it is important,” says Burgers, “that Environmental Defence really knows how to make this plausible in court.”