27
May

Shell loses climate case that may set precedent for big oil

Royal Dutch Shell has been ordered by a Dutch court to slash its emissions harder and faster than planned, dealing a blow to the oil giant that could have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the global fossil fuel industry.

Shell, which said it expects to appeal the ruling, has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent within a decade, and to net-zero before 2050. That’s not enough, a court in The Hague ruled Wednesday afternoon, ordering the oil producer to slash emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2019 levels.

The court said the ruling applies to the entire Shell group. That raises the prospect of the company having to radically speed up its current climate and divestment policies in order to hit the new target.

While many countries, including the Netherlands, have signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, companies such as Shell were not part of the agreement and so far haven’t been bound by national pledges. That didn’t stop Larisa Alwin, the Dutch presiding judge, from stating that companies have a burden to shoulder too.

Shell has a joint structure with its headquarters in the Netherlands — where the verdict is binding — and its parent company incorporated in the UK. But the case will be scrutinised in other countries amid a new era of litigation related to climate change.

While many countries, including the Netherlands, have signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, companies such as Shell were not part of the agreement and so far haven’t been bound by national pledges. That didn’t stop Larisa Alwin, the Dutch presiding judge, from stating that companies have a burden to shoulder too.

Shell has a joint structure with its headquarters in the Netherlands — where the verdict is binding — and its parent company incorporated in the UK. But the case will be scrutinised in other countries amid a new era of litigation related to climate change.

“This is big news for carbon emitters everywhere, not just in the oil industry,” Angus Walker, an environmental lawyer at BDP Pitmans in London, said. “This may spread from large emitters to small, and from the Netherlands to other countries, at least in terms of challenges, if not successful ones.”

The case against Shell was brought by local environmental group MilieuDefensie. The campaigners accused the company of violating human rights by not adhering to the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting the average increase in global temperatures to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The courts have become an increasingly successful arena for campaigners to hold governments and countries to account over pollution and climate change. This is the second time in quick succession that a Dutch court has ruled that Shell’s parent company in The Hague is liable for environmental damages in other jurisdictions.

In January, a court of appeals said that Hague-headquartered Shell had a duty of care to prevent leaks in Nigeria. The German government fell foul of a judge over its climate targets when its top court ruled that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s climate-protection efforts were falling short in April.

“Urgent action is needed on climate change which is why we have accelerated our efforts to become a net-zero emissions energy company by 2050,” a Shell spokesperson said. “We are investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels.”

It could be a difficult day for Shell’s US rivals as well. Activist investor Engine No. 1 is bidding to replace one-third of Exxon Mobil’s board at its annual meeting on Wednesday to try and force a climate-friendly overhaul of the world’s biggest oil exporter. No. 2 US producer Chevron is also set to be confronted by campaigners over its targets at its annual meeting the same day.

Shell already has targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But so far those figures have only come down thanks to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as well as selling oil and gas assets. While divestments reduce Shell’s own emission profile, those pollutants are still pumped into the atmosphere and can sometimes even increase.

Extracted from AFR