A Dutch court verdict against Royal Dutch Shell Plc will determine whether it has a legal responsibility for climate change, in a case that will be watched by Big Oil executives globally.
A panel of judges in a lower court in The Hague will rule on Wednesday in a case being followed closely by environmental campaigners too. While the verdict is only legally binding in the Netherlands, it’s set to be scrutinized as a new area of litigation and may guide deliberations by judges elsewhere.
Shell was sued by Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, whose lawyers spent two weeks in court earlier this year arguing that the company is violating human rights by extracting fossil fuels and undermining the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting temperature increases to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Oil companies around the world have a so-called duty of care they must respect in the countries they operate to avoid oil spills and other non-deliberate acts of pollution. A verdict holding them liable for greenhouse gas emission caused by the burning of fossil fuels they’ve extracted would be a landmark victory for environmental campaigners, who’ve increasingly turned to courts to seek reforms. At last count, there were close to 1,700 climate change cases targeting governments and companies, according to the climatecasechart.com database.
“Without doubt, it’s a very important case,” said Eric De Brabandere, a professor of international dispute settlement at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “Not only because it directly targets such a big oil company but also indirectly attacks the whole oil extraction industry.”
Shell acknowledges it has a role in dealing with climate change and says it’s doing so, but that it’s better achieved through cooperation rather than court action.
“Addressing climate change is a huge, huge challenge and requires a collaborative and global approach,” Shell Legal Director Donny Ching said at the company’s annual meeting last week. “I don’t think litigation is going to help us.”
Milieudefensie rounded up 17,000 people to sign on as co-plaintiffs in its complaint, which it says is the “first time a court has been asked to order a polluting transnational corporation to emit less CO₂ to save the climate.”
“Judges around the world are being confronted by climate change cases and are looking to other judges for points of reference,” said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Recent decisions have not gone Shell’s way in both countries in which the Anglo-Dutch company is jointly listed. Thousands of Nigerians can sue Shell in London over environmental damage in the West African nation, the U.K.’s top court said in February. A month earlier, a Dutch court ordered Shell’s Nigerian unit to compensate locals for oil spills 13 years ago in a case that was also brought by Milieudefensie.