Dutch court case claims Shell’s operations violate human rights

By Laura Hurst and Diederik Baazil on 12/17/2020
Shell offshore operations, Nigeria
Shell offshore operations, Nigeria

LONDON (Bloomberg) --Royal Dutch Shell Plc is in court in The Hague for the final hearing in a landmark case that could force it to reduce its carbon footprint.

The case brought by the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, Milieudefensie, links the oil major’s stance on climate change with human rights. The ruling will also have implications for Shell’s European peers as pressure mounts on polluting energy companies to step up the fight against global warming.

Over two weeks of court proceedings, lawyers for Milieudefensie have argued that Shell is violating human rights by extracting fossil fuels and undermining the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Shell says it’s playing its part in addressing climate change, which can only be tackled through collaboration and not court action.

A 2015 case in which environmental group Urgenda successfully sued the Dutch government for missing its own carbon-reduction goals has been a focal point. The court ruled then that the Dutch state caused “unacceptable danger” to society, for which it has a duty of care.

Milieudefensie and Roger Cox, the same lawyer that led the Urgenda case, say there’s now a precedent: failure to achieve climate goals violates human rights. But for Shell, there’s no parallel -- unlike the Dutch state, it is not a signatory to the 2015 Paris accord.

“We agree with Milieudefensie that action is needed now on climate change,” a Shell spokesperson said. “What will accelerate the energy transition is effective policy, investment in technology and changing customer behavior, none of which will be achieved with this court action.”

Position of Power

In a hearing Tuesday, Milieudefensie argued that Shell has a “special position of power” in the energy transition, making it just as responsible for climate change as most states. The oil producer, which accounts for 1.2% of carbon emissions worldwide, has a systemic role in global warming, the group said.

Milieudefensie hopes that a ruling in its favor could have a ripple effect for other fossil-fuel producers.

“The oil majors are watching very closely, so we expect to have a big impact,” said Peer de Rijk, an energy campaigner at the group. “Oil companies themselves will quite likely adopt new policies in an attempt to avoid court cases.”

Milieudefensie isn’t seeking monetary compensation, but a substantial change of course from the company to tackle climate change. Shell says it’s already taking action. The Anglo-Dutch major expanded its climate ambitions in April, pledging to eliminate net emissions from its own operations and the bulk of greenhouse gases from the fuel it sells to customers by 2050. The company will outline the first steps of its transformation in a strategy update in February, ahead of a verdict in the case expected before the end of March.

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