THE HAGUE – A group of environmental organizations backed by thousands of Dutch citizens launched a civil case Tuesday against the energy giant Shell, asking a court to order the multinational to commit to reining in its carbon emissions 45% by the year 2030.
Lawyer Roger Cox told a panel of three judges at The Hague District Court that Royal Dutch Shell's corporate policy is “at odds” with global climate goals.
"The claimants therefore conclude that Royal Dutch Shell’s corporate policy is on collision course with global climate targets,” Cox said as he opened four days of hearings spread over the coming weeks.
Shell lawyer Dennis Horeman told the judges that the company already is working on energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable sources and cautioned that a victory for the environmental groups could open the floodgates to “countless” similar cases.
The legal battle led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, is the latest in a string of cases around the world in which activists are using the courts to fight for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from governments and companies.
“Everybody needs to pitch in if we are to tackle the climate crisis, especially big polluters like Shell. But Shell and its shareholders are not taking their responsibility, that’s why we are taking legal action,” said Nils Mollema of ActionAid Netherlands, another group involved in the case.
Cox told the court that Shell is responsible — through its business activities and sales of fossil fuels — for around 1.2% of the globe's industrial greenhouse gas emissions.
Horeman insisted that Shell is playing an active role in the energy transition, pointing to projects it is involved with in the Netherlands to build a huge wind turbine park and to create “green hydrogen” using renewable sources, as well as targets Shell has set to reduce emissions.
But he added: “No single private party can change the energy system on its own, not even Shell.”
A judgment against Shell could create a situation “in which countless parties can hold each other accountable for their role in that transition through the courts” and give judges “a central role in an active and delicate political process.”
Shell says it has set “an ambition to be a net zero emissions energy business by 2050, or sooner.”
Under the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions target is a reduction by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
The Shell case, which has more than 17,000 claimants, follows in the footsteps of a groundbreaking 2015 court ruling — later upheld by an appeals court — that ordered the Dutch government to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 from benchmark 1990 levels.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded by saying: “I can guarantee we will do everything we can to achieve the goal.” But it remains to be seen if the target will be met by year's end.
The Urgenda and Shell cases are similar because they are based in part on a duty of care enshrined in Dutch law.
Not all climate cases are successful. Last month, German judges threw out a lawsuit by three farming families who had taken Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to court and argued that it wasn’t doing enough to tackle climate change.
Roda Verheyen, a German lawyer who brought that case but is not involved in the Dutch case, said the outcome of the civil case against Shell could have repercussions for businesses around the world as it poses questions about how businesses balance their bottom line with their duty of care responsibilities.
“The Shell case taken by Milieudefensie and others is the first to actually do this in court,” she said. "So whatever comes out will be very interesting. I think you could say globally.”
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