The District Court of The Hague began hearings against Royal Dutch Shell on Tuesday in a case brought by 17,379 co-plaintiffs and seven Dutch climate activist groups.
The co-plaintiffs, led by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie), are demanding that Shell reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and to net-zero by 2050. They claim that Shell knowingly contributes to climate change by continuing to expand its fossil fuel operations with little to no investment in renewable energy. Invoking article 6:162 of the Dutch Civil Code, the plaintiffs allege that Shell has breached its duty of care and unlawfully endangered the Dutch people. In addition, they allege that Shell has violated articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), namely the rights to life and respect for family life.
The case relies in part on an earlier decision of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, in which the government was ordered to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. While the court was able to enforce ECHR obligations against the State, it remains to be seen whether the same can be done against a company.
In its statement of defense, Shell acknowledged the legitimacy of climate change as a “serious challenge that requires effective, urgent and ambitious action from the whole of society.” However, it disputed the applicability of the ECHR to its actions and claimed that the plaintiffs erred in concluding that only Dutch law applied. Rather, it argued, the present claims should be governed by several countries’ laws, and that the plaintiffs failed to provide any basis for concluding that Shell’s activities are unlawful in each of the countries in which its products are manufactured and used.
Milieudefensie Director Donald Pols remained hopeful, saying in a statement on Monday, “This is a unique lawsuit with potentially significant consequences for the climate and the fossil fuel industry globally. We are confident that the judge’s final verdict will force Shell to adhere to international climate goals and stop causing dangerous climate change.”