Shell ordered to go further with carbon emissions cuts in landmark Dutch case

A protestor marked with paint takes part in an action by Extinction Rebellion and Dutch climate activist group Code Rood, at a Shell station in The Hague, May 18, 2021.
A protestor marked with paint takes part in an action by Extinction Rebellion and Dutch climate activist group Code Rood, at a Shell station in The Hague, May 18, 2021. © Bart Maat, ANP, AFP

A Dutch court ordered oil giant Shell on Wednesday to slash its greenhouse gas emissions targets in a landmark victory for climate activists.


Dubbed "the People versus Shell", the case was launched in 2019 by the Netherlands branch of Friends of the Earth, and is backed by six other groups and more than 17,000 Dutch citizens.

"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 percent based on 2019 levels," the court said.

"Royal Dutch Shell has to implement this decision at once."

The climate groups had asked the court to impose the target, saying that Anglo-Dutch multinational Shell should meet emissions targets in the 2015 Paris climate accords.

Shell said in February it had set new targets to reduce its net carbon footprint compared to a 2016 baseline by 20 percent by 2030, 45 percent by 2035 and 100 percent by 2050. 

Its previous targets were 30 percent by 2035 and 65 percent by 2050.

Shell had argued that it is making serious efforts to cut gas emissions, but that there is no legal basis for the case and that governments are responsible for meeting Paris targets.

Friends of the Earth Netherlands, one of the groups leading the case, said in a statement ahead of the verdict that it was "unique because it is the first time in history that judges have been asked to order a company to emit less CO2."

The case is one of a series around the world in which citizens and campaigners frustrated with inaction on climate change have hauled governments and big polluters before the courts.

'Historic opportunity'

The 2015 Paris accords committed all nations to cut carbon emissions to limit warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels and encouraged them to go down to 1.5 degrees.

ActionAid Netherlands executive director Marit Maij said that "big polluters like Shell have an outsized responsibility to help tackle climate change."

Maij said the case was a "historic opportunity to hold Shell accountable for its actions and ensure it cuts its emissions in line with the Paris Agreement".

The group said Shell's "strategy is to keep polluting while offsetting their emissions with vast tree plantations." 

"This will require land the equivalent of three times the size of the Netherlands, which risks driving conflicts over food and land in the Global South", she added.

Dozens of climate marchers handed in the lawsuit to Shell's headquarters in the Netherlands in The Hague in April 2019 in what organisers said was the first case of its kind.

Shell's lawyers told the court in December that the company was already taking "serious steps" to support the global transition away from the fossil fuels, and that the ultimate decision rested with governments.

Campaigners have repeated the success of a case brought by the green group Urgenda in which the Dutch Supreme Court in 2019 ordered the state to slash emissions by at least 25 percent of 1990 levels by the end of 2020.

The Netherlands, particularly vulnerable to climate change as a third of the country is below sea level, has pledged to reduce CO2 emissions by 49 percent by 2030.


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