Court orders Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030

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A court in the Hague has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared with 2019 levels, in a landmark case brought by Friends of the Earth and over 17,000 co-plaintiffs.

The oil giant’s sustainability policy was found to be insufficiently “concrete” by the Dutch court in an unprecedented ruling that will have wide implications for the energy industry and other polluting multinationals.

The Anglo-Dutch company was told it had a duty of care and that the level of emission reductions of Shell and its suppliers and buyers should be brought into line with the Paris climate agreement.

Judge Larisa Alwin said Shell must “at once” reduce its CO2 output, adding that the ruling would have “far-reaching consequences” for the company and may “curb the potential growth of the Shell group”.

“The interest served with the reduction obligation outweighs the Shell group’s commercial interests,” she said.

Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands, also known as Milieudefensie, called on organisations across the world to “pick up the gauntlet”, and take legal action to force multinationals to play their full part in tackling the climate emergency.

He said: “This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting corporation to comply with the Paris climate agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters.”

Donald Pols, director of Milieudefensie, described the decision as “a monumental victory”.

Shell, which said it would appeal the judgment, was the ninth biggest polluter in the world in 1988-2015, according to the Carbon Majors database. An appeal against the ruling could last two years but Cox said he hoped the company’s executives and shareholders would act in the meantime.

Shell had said in February it would accelerate the transition of its business to net-zero emissions, including targets to reduce the carbon intensity of energy products by 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030, 45% by 2035 and 100% by 2050.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs successfully argued that the company had been aware for decades of the dangerous consequences of CO2 emissions and its targets remained insufficiently robust.

It was claimed that Shell was breaching article 6:162 of the Dutch civil code and violating articles 2 and 8 of the European convention on human rights – the right to life and the right to family life – by causing a danger to others when alternative measures could be be taken.

The court ruled that there were indeed obligations under both Dutch law and the convention and that the company had known for “a long time” about the damage of carbon emissions.

While the company had not acted unlawfully, the court said it had established that there would be an “imminent violation of the reduction obligation”.

It added that company’s “policy intentions and ambitions for the Shell group largely amount to rather intangible, undefined and non-binding plans for the long-term”.

It found they were “dependent on the pace at which global society moves towards the climate goals of the Paris agreement”, allowing it to move more slowly, and that the “emissions reduction targets for 2030 are lacking completely”.

Shell had argued that there was no legal basis for the case and that governments alone are responsible for meeting Paris targets. The court found that “since 2012 there has been broad international consensus about the need for non-state action, because states cannot tackle the climate issue on their own”.

Shell’s activities and products are responsible for about 1% of global emissions every year but the company is investing billions more in oil and gas, the court heard.

Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP on the European parliament’s environment committee, said: “This ruling is really good news for the climate. It increases the pressure on large polluters and helps us in Europe to tighten climate policy for them as well. They can no longer escape the climate crisis: the international climate targets must also apply to them.”

A Shell spokesperson said: “Urgent action is needed on climate change which is why we have accelerated our efforts to become a net-zero emissions energy company by 2050, in step with society, with short-term targets to track our progress.

“We are investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels. We want to grow demand for these products and scale up our new energy businesses even more quickly. We will continue to focus on these efforts and fully expect to appeal today’s disappointing court decision.”

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