Shell Denies Climate Change Liability as Extraordinary Proceedings Come to Close

Demonstrators hold a banner reading “standing by and watching is no longer an option” outside the court building prior to the start of the court case of Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of the Friends of the Earth environmental organization, against Shell in The Hague, Netherlands, on Dec. 1. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A group of environmental groups wrapped up two weeks of hearings on Thursday in a unique case that could force the oil giant Shell to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

If lawyers for Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, are successful before The Hague District Court it would be the first time a lawsuit over climate change would require a company to change its business strategy. 

The environmentalists, joined by 17,000 Dutch citizens, want Shell to commit to a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, eliminating them entirely by 2050. Milieudefensie calls Shell the largest polluter in the Netherlands, responsible for emitting twice as much of the greenhouse gas CO2 as compared with the country it calls home. 

The Anglo-Dutch multinational argued this week that Shell cannot be held liable in the Netherlands for worldwide emissions. “The ‘crime scene,’ in this case, is the physical place that carbon dioxide emissions take place,” Shell lawyer Dennis Horeman told the three-judge panel. 

The environmental group argues that Shell is violating Dutch liability law as well as Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, a 1953 treaty that protects the political and civil rights of European citizens. 

Under the so-called basement hatch decision (kelderluik in Dutch), a company can be held liable if it creates a situation that it should have been aware could be dangerous. But the court is also required to evaluate how difficult it would be to implement a solution. 

Shell contends that climate change is a collective problem for which no single company can be held responsible. “Shell alone cannot change the current system. Society as a whole must change,” its lawyers said. 

“Everyone sees how important it is to have a liveable planet and therefore reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Except, apparently, Shell,” Milieudefensie lawyer Roger Cox said. Cox also represented another environmental action group Urgenda during its successful lawsuit against the Dutch government. Last year the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of 2020. In that case, the court found that the country is obligated to protect its citizens from climate change under the Convention of Human Rights.

Milieudefensie has cited the convention, as well as other international law and environmental agreements, as obligations Shell must meet. But Shell argued that, as a company, it is not bound by the Urgenda decision and it is neither a party to the Paris climate agreement nor the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Those are agreements concluded between countries,” Horeman said. 

The 2015 Paris climate agreement was signed by 195 countries that agreed to keep the overall temperature of the planet at between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It superseded the U.N. agreement, signed by 154 countries in 1992, which also aimed to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

The final statement for Milieudefensie was not given by one of the groups lawyers but by the chairperson of Young Environmental Action, Anne Chatrou. “I stand here on behalf of those millions of young people who stood side by side in the Netherlands, in Europe and all over the world during the climate strikes. On behalf of the children who have not yet been born. So that we have a future to look forward to,” Chatrou said. 

Milieudefensie is also involved in another lawsuit against Shell before the Dutch courts. The group is representing four Nigerian farmers who claim the company’s oil leaks have ruined their land and drinking water. A decision in that case, which has been ongoing for more than a decade, is expected in January.  

A ruling is expected in this case on May 26, 2021.

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