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Shell Faces Lawsuit in the Netherlands, a New Legal Front in the Climate Battle

That letter followed the public release of a trove of documents by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent showing that for decades, Shell has been aware of the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate. Like ExxonMobil, Shell had studied the problem and acknowledged the danger in internal documents, yet publicly downplayed the risk while funding climate denial groups.

By Dana Drugmand

Seven environmental and human rights organizations in the Netherlands announced on Tuesday they are prepared to sue Royal Dutch Shell if the oil giant refuses to align its business model with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The groups, led by Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, Greenpeace Netherlands and ActionAid Netherlands have gathered more than 13,000 signatures from Dutch citizens backing the forthcoming lawsuit. If Shell fails to meet their demands, they plan to deliver a court summons to the company at its headquarters in The Hague on April 5. This would be a new legal approach in battling climate change, the first lawsuit to directly challenge the business model and growth strategy of an oil company.

“For decades, Shell has chosen to make big profits at the expense of the climate. Shell is deliberately obstructing the energy revolution that is so badly needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. We need to make sure that Shell takes responsibility for its actions and changes its destructive business model,” said Joris Thijssen, director of Greenpeace Netherlands.

Other groups joining Greenpeace and ActionAid include Both ENDS, Wadden Sea Forum, Jongeren Milieu Actief(Young Friends of the Earth NL), and Fossilvrij NL (Fossil Free NL). Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie is spearheading the action, which it began last year when the organization sent a letter to Shell warning of legal action if the company failed to cut back producing the fossil fuels that drive climate change.

That letter followed the public release of a trove of documents by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent showing that for decades, Shell has been aware of the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate. Like ExxonMobil, Shell had studied the problem and acknowledged the danger in internal documents, yet publicly downplayed the risk while funding climate denial groups. Shell even predicted as far back as 1998 that it could be sued along with other fossil fuel producers following a devastating storm, made more destructive because of climate change.

Shell responded to the Milieudefensie letter last May explaining its position on climate change and calling the potential lawsuit “meritless,” arguing that courts should not dictate energy policy. This defense has already emerged in litigation against Shell and other fossil fuel companies filed by local and state governments in the U.S.

But as the group of organizations points out, Shell is among the top 10 fossil fuel producers (dubbed the Carbon Majors) collectively responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

According to Milieudefensie, Shell produces twice as much carbon pollution as the rest of the Netherlands combined. An attorney for the organization, Roger Cox, led the successful landmark Urgenda lawsuit against the Dutch government, which convinced a court to compel it to cut emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. That historic decision marked the first time a court has ordered a country to take more aggressive action on climate change, and it has inspired a wave of climate litigation in other countries.

Climate and human rights activists in the Netherlands have now turned their attention to Shell, which continues to invest billions of dollars in new oil and gas exploration every year. They say that Shell’s business strategy is incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.

“This court case offers a historic opportunity to break the power of climate damaging companies such as Shell, and to stop their damaging activities. It is unacceptable that multinationals like Shell are still slowing down the transition from fossils to renewable, sustainable energy,” said Liset Meddens, director of Fossielvrij Netherlands.

“The fossil fuel industry—and Shell in particular—is not taking their responsibility,” added Danielle Hirsch, director of the environmental group Both ENDS.

While Shell, like many of its oil industry peers, claims it supports the Paris Agreement, it maintains its core business in oil and gas and puts forward only modest carbon reduction strategies. For example, in order to have a chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that carbon emissions need to reach net zero by 2050. But Shell says it plans to reduce the net carbon footprint of its products by only 50 percent by 2050, and delays any net-zero emissions ambition until 2070.

The Netherlands’ organizations say they are determined to hold Shell accountable for its role in driving climate-related devastation.

“From severe droughts in Africa to extreme flooding in Asia, millions of people we work with are seeing their lives and livelihoods torn apart by climate change. Shell’s refusal to kick its fossil fuel addiction is sentencing them and many more to further devastation,” said Maria van der Heide, head of policy and campaigns at ActionAid Netherlands. “We’re joining this case because we want to ensure that Shell finally puts humanity’s future above its bottom line.”

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