Abstract

Climate change litigations have been increasing in recent years where the majority of these cases have failed to reach their stated objective that is forcing states through domestic court decisions to adopt measures combating global warming. Nonetheless, there are some rulings that are currently emerging globally signalling that the momentum is shifting in favour of climate change activists and organisations as the courts level. In the past few years the Dutch national court issued two landmark decisions, the Urgenda case and a class action case against Royal Dutch Shell. In this blog I will give a summary of both landmark climate cases and the impact of these cases.

In the past few years the Dutch national court issued two landmark decisions, the Urgenda case and a class action case against Royal Dutch Shell. In this blog I will give a summary of both landmark climate cases and the impact of these cases.

Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands
A Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, and 900 Dutch citizens sued the Dutch government to require it to do more to prevent global climate change. In December 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that the state owes a duty of care to protect its citizens from climate change in accordance with its obligations under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). This was the culmination of a 7-year judicial process, with the nation’s highest court ultimately finding that “climate change threatens human rights” and that “in order to ensure adequate protection from the threat of those rights resulting from climate change, it should be possible to invoke those rights against individual states”. In reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court determined the exact level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction that the Netherlands is required to meet to comply with its ECHR obligation, specifically, a 25 percent reduction compared to its 1990 level by the end of 2020.

Find the Urgenda case documents here

Impact of Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands
The judgment is significant because it demonstrates how a court can determine responsibilities of an individual state, notwithstanding the fact that climate change is caused by a multiplicity of other actors who share responsibility for its harmful effects. Following the success in the Urgenda Climate Case, citizens around the world are taking their governments to court over their insufficient climate policies. These lawsuits has been initiated to establish legal responsibility for actors contributing to climate change. The Urgenda judgment, that has been seen as the ‘strongest’ of all, makes clear that the fact the a state is only a minor contributor compared to many other actors, does not preclude its individual responsibility. The judgment contains important pointers that plaintiffs and courts can rely on in similar cases. Urgenda also initiated the Climate Litigation Network to support climate cases worldwide.

Find publications on the Urgenda case in the Peace Palace Library catalogue here

Milieudefensie et al. v. Royal Dutch Shell plc. (Shell)
In this class action case on 26 May 2021, a Dutch court found oil giant Shell responsible for CO2 reduction ordering Shell to cut greenhouse emissions by net 45% at end 2030, relative to 2019. This is the first time that any court in the world has ordered a fossil fuel company to comply with global climate goals and to become aligned with the Paris Agreement. The environmental group Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands commenced proceedings in April 2019 against Shell alleging Shell’s contributions to climate change violate its duty of care under Dutch law and human rights obligations. The case was filed in the Hague Court of Appeal. It argues that given the Paris Agreement’s goals and the scientific evidence regarding the dangers of climate change, Shell has a duty of care to take action to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The duty is said to arise from article 6:162 of the Dutch Civil Code as further informed by the ECHR which guarantees rights to life (Article 2) and rights to a private life, family life, home, and correspondence (Article 8). The plaintiffs’ argument outlines how Shell’s long knowledge of climate change, misleading statements on climate change, and inadequate action to reduce climate change help support a finding of Shell’s unlawful endangerment of Dutch citizens and actions constituting hazardous negligence. The plaintiffs seek a ruling from the court that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and to zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. In an unprecedented judgment, the Court found oil giant Shell obliged to reduce the CO2 emissions of the entire Shell group’s activities by net 45% at end 2030, relative to 2019, through the Shell group’s corporate policy.

Find the case documents here

Impact of the class action against Dutch Royal Shell 
This judgment is a massive win for environmental campaigners and may have a significant impact on the businesses of large industrial companies. It is the first time that an obligation to reduce CO2-emissions has been imposed on a private party by a court. The case showed that it's not good enough anymore for companies to comply with the law on their emissions. Large industrial companies have to adjust their operations to comply with global climate policy too. The oil company is the first to be held individually liable, but climate-justice groups aim to ensure it isn’t the last.

The Peace Palace Library Research Guide Environment

Publications in the Peace Palace Library catalogue on climate change litigation