Shell loses landmark climate case in Dutch Court: ordered to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030

The Hague District Court has ordered oil giant Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030, compared to 2019 levels. The landmark case was brought by environmental organization Friends of The Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) and over 17,000 individual plaintiffs.

The Shell Group is one of the world’s largest suppliers of fossil fuels, and has been responsible for nearly 2% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015, according to the Carbon Majors Report. In February, the company said it would accelerate its transition to net-zero emissions, reducing the carbon intensity of energy products by 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035, and 100% by 2050.

However, the lawyers for Milieudefensie and other plaintiffs argued that Shell had acted unlawfully, and the company’s current targets were not sufficient, given the dangerous consequences of CO2 emission to humans and other organisms on Earth. The Milieudefensie lawyers also alleged that the Anglo-Dutch company was breaking the Dutch civil code and the European Convention on Human Rights, by harming human life when an alternative is possible.

The verdict of this case, which was first filed in 2019, was classified by Milieudefensie director Donald Pols as ‘historic’, as it is the first time a court has ordered a major polluter to cut emissions. He described the decision as a ‘monumental victory’. Michael Burger, head of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School and himself involved as a lawyer in similar cases, was quick to note that ‘this is a significant development in climate litigation, and that this episode could sway ‘courtrooms around the world’. While the Dutch verdict is only legally binding in the Netherlands, Burger believes that other judges will likely look to this case as a point of reference. There are currently close to two thousand lawsuits related to climate change being fought in courtrooms worldwide, according to the Center.

Back in the Hague, judge Larisa Alwin was firm on ruling that Shell should accelerate its reduction of CO2 output in order to effectively comply with the Paris climate agreement.  Many countries, including the Netherlands, are bound by the international treaty to reduce carbon emissions, but, thus far, companies such as Shell were not considered part of it. In court, Shell argued against the evocation of the Paris climate agreement, stating that it is meant to regulate governments alone. But the court found that, since 2012, there has been a broad consensus that states cannot tackle climate change on their own.

The judge also admitted that this verdict could ‘curb the potential growth of the Shell Group’, but ‘the interest served through the CO2 emission reduction outweighs the Group’s commercial interests’. The court has said it is up to the company to implement the ruling and live up to its individual responsibility. Energy analysts say that the biggest challenge the company will face is the regulation of carbon emissions not caused by Shell itself, but by its clients.

Shell board member Harry Brekelmans called the judge’s ruling ‘disappointing’, citing the company’s intention to tackle climate change through investing billions in renewable energy sources and biofuels, as well as its own set target to become a net-zero company by 2050. He announced the company will appeal the judge’s decision.

For now, experts are calling the case a landmark in climate change law, and are certain we will be seeing a ripple effect in the following years. ‘I can imagine this will inspire a series of other cases against companies, especially those active in the oil extraction industries like Shell,’ says Eric De Brabandere, a professor of international dispute settlement at Leiden University. Bas Eichhout, a Green MEP and member of the European Parliament’s environment committee, echoes the sentiment, and adds: ‘This ruling is good news for climate – large polluters can no longer escape the climate crisis’.

Written by Beatriz Negreiros