Shell Faces Off Against Environmentalists in Dutch Climate Case

Demonstrators gather outside the court prior to the start of environmentalists’ case against Shell in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — More than 17,000 Dutch citizens backed by environmental action groups told a Netherlands court Tuesday that oil giant Shell must drastically reduce its emissions for the world to avoid catastrophic warming.

Lawyers for Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, told the judges of The Hague District Court that without legal intervention against the Anglo-Dutch multinational, the world will not be able to meet emission reduction targets set out in the Paris climate agreement. 

“Shell is responsible for dangerous climate change and it threatens humanity, human rights, nature and the environment,” lawyer Roger Cox told the court.

Supported by six other environment-focused nongovernmental organizations including Greenpeace, Milieudefensie brought its lawsuit in the Netherlands because Shell is headquartered in The Hague.  

The environmentalists want Shell to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 and eliminate them entirely by 2050. According to Milieudefensie, Shell is the largest polluter in the Netherlands and emits twice as much of the greenhouse gas CO2 than the country it calls home. 

“Change is needed,” Shell lawyer Dennis Horeman said in his opening statement, but denied that the oil giant was legally liable. “Customers can also take action themselves to limit or offset their emissions. Shell cannot impose the choices of end-users.” 

Shell has long argued that the responsibility for reducing emissions ultimately lies with the consumer. It ran a poll on its Twitter account last month asking its followers what they were willing to do to reduce emissions. The post was ridiculed, with the company being accused of putting the “gas” in “gaslighting.” 

“We believe the claims in this summons are inappropriate and legally without foundation,” Shell said in a statement ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, the first of four scheduled over the next two weeks.

Milieudefensie Director Donald Pols acknowledges the lawsuit is unique. It is the first time a major energy company has faced a lawsuit over climate change that would require it to change its business strategy if the case is successful. 

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.

Last year, the Dutch Supreme Court sided with another environmental action group, Urgenda, and ruled the Netherlands must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of 2020. The court found that the country is obligated to protect its citizens from climate change under the convention. 

Shell told the court that it is already aiming to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050, but Milieudefensie does not believe this is sufficient.

“Royal Dutch Shell’s corporate policy is on a collision course with global climate targets,” Cox said.

Hearings in the case will continue on Wednesday. 

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.

Shell’s plan to meet its own goal relies heavily on so-called “negative emissions technologies” such as carbon capture,  which removes carbon dioxide from the air and traps it underground, but it’s not clear if those solutions are able to be scaled up to the level needed to meet the target. 

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. 

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