In late May, a court in the Netherlands ordered international fuel giant Shell to cut its emissions substantially by 2030 – by 45% compared with 2019 levels, in fact. The company’s existing ambition was a 20% reduction over the same time period, and as such this court order represents a substantial acceleration.
The court did not concede that the oil corporation was in breach of its obligation to reduce emissions right now – just that it is likely to be in breach of them in the future.
The case was actually heard in The Hague, where Shell is actually headquartered. It was filed back in April of 2019, by around 17,000 Dutch spread across seven activist groups including Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Greenpeace.
The groups in question were understandably euphoric. “This verdict is a historic victory for the climate and everyone facing the consequences of the climate crisis. Shell cannot continue to violate human rights and put profit over people and the planet,” said Andy Palmen of Greenpeace Netherlands.
The claimants argued that Shell was in breach of the Dutch civil code, and of sections two and eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, which respectively guarantee the life and family life. The company is causing danger to others when there are alternative measures available. The court determined that the company was indeed obliged to make the changes and that it had known about the danger of its activities for “a long time.”
Shell is likely to appeal against the ruling – and such an appeal could last for two years or more. They are the world’s ninth biggest polluter, according to the Carbon Majors database for 1988-2015. They outlined an action plan for net zero in February, which saw targets of 20% for 2030, 45% by 2035, and 100% by 2050. So, in fact, this reduction actually amounts to a five-year acceleration of the already existing plan.
The ruling is likely to set a precedent by which other oil giants can be forced to accelerate their carbon reduction plans. Many may decide to jump before being pushed, given that activists will be emboldened that their actions can, in fact, make a difference.
It’s an apt demonstration, too, of the importance of Environmental, Social and Governance factors which might have traditionally fallen outside of the bottom-line-focussed remit of many boardrooms.
If huge corporations can be induced to take their responsibilities to the planet and to society as a whole seriously, then so too might smaller organisations. Identifying ways in which you’re causing harm to other people, and taking proactive steps to stop inflicting that harm, is, therefore, a thing worth doing.