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

Oil giant told plans should be brought into line with Paris climate agreement

First published on Wed 26 May 2021 10.25 EDT

A court in the Hague has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared to 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 industry.

The Anglo-Dutch company was said to have a duty of care to reduce emissions, and told that its plans should be brought into line with the Paris climate agreement.

“The court orders Royal Dutch Shell … to reduce its CO2 output and those of its suppliers and buyers by the end of 2030 by a net of 45% based on 2019 levels,” the court said. “Royal Dutch Shell has to implement this decision at once.”

Shell, which can appeal the judgment, was the ninth biggest polluter in the world in 1988-2015, according to the Carbon Majors database.

The company had raised its targets in April to reduce its relative CO2 emissions by 30% by 2035, and by 65% by 2050 compared with 2016.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs successfully argued that these targets were insufficient, as such relative changes could be achieved simply by investing in renewables at the same time as expanding fossil fuel investment.

Friends of the Earth Netherlands further argued in the case, dubbed “the People versus Shell”, that the energy company had been aware for decades of the damage it has inflicted and was acting unlawfully by expanding its fossil fuel operations.

It was claimed that the Anglo-Dutch company 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.

Shell had argued that there was no legal basis for the case and that governments alone are responsible for meeting Paris targets.

Last year, the Dutch supreme court upheld a groundbreaking 2015 ruling ordering the Netherlands government to do much more to cut carbon emissions, following a legal battle pursued by the non-profit Urgenda foundation on similar grounds.

But this is the first such case against a multinational.

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.

A cache of internal and external documents were disclosed to the court to prove that Shell had known about climate change since at least the 1950s and has been aware of its large-scale consequences since 1986.

It was argued that despite seeking to become more sustainable in the 1990s, the company had changed course in 2007 to focus on some of the most polluting fossil fuels including shale gas.

Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands, 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.”

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.”

The court’s ruling is that Royal Dutch Shell’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”.

The court said the company had not acted unlawfully but that it had an obligation to protect the human rights of Dutch citizens.

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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