Seven environmental groups and 17,000 Dutch citizens went up against oil giant Shell in court last week – and won. They accused the company of “unlawful endangerment” of life under the Dutch civil code and of violating the right to life and the right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights. Their argument was that Shell has a duty of care to prevent the harm caused by climate change. The judges agreed.
The court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its carbon emissions “at once”. The oil company was ordered to comply with the Paris climate agreement and reduce its emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2019 levels by 2030.
Here’s why it matters:
- It sets a precedent: Dutch law isn’t applicable elsewhere, but human rights laws are. The fact that the complainants won with a human rights argument should empower other climate activists to bring similar cases in other countries (See below for more).
- It could have implications for other corporate polluters: Big emitters will have been following the court case closely. Now their choices are clear: they can either think harder about how to slash emissions quickly – or ready themselves for litigation.
- It’s the first time a company has been ordered to comply with the Paris agreement: Shell tried to argue that the Paris climate goals only apply to countries, but the court found that there has been “broad international consensus about the need for non-state action” for almost a decade now. “States cannot tackle the climate issue on their own,” the ruling said.
- It puts climate before profits: The judgement acknowledged that dramatically cutting emissions might “curb the potential growth” of the company but found that the benefits of the reduction “outweigh the Shell group’s commercial interests.” In other words: climate targets are more important than Shell’s bottom line.
- It targets emissions by suppliers and customers: The judgement encompasses emissions by a corporation’s suppliers and customers too – so Shell is responsible for the carbon emissions of its petrol station patrons – not just the emissions from its business operations and own energy use. To cut those, they’ll have to change what they sell to consumers (i.e. their entire business model).
Shell is appealing the verdict.
Science and Tech
In the race to renewable energy, storing power cheaply is a major hurdle. Lithium-ion batteries are the gold standard, but they are expensive. Cheap zinc-air batteries could be the way forward, but there’s an obstacle: they’re not endlessly rechargeable. That’s because the chemical reaction that happens while zinc-air batteries are discharging their energy can’t easily be reversed. During the recharge process, spiky deposits of zinc form in places where they’re not supposed to, eventually those spikes can grow big enough to short-circuit the battery. But researchers are making strides towards cracking that problem, Science reports. One group from Hanyang University in Korea have made a zinc battery that can be recharged thousands of times. The next challenge? Size. For now, those zinc batteries don’t come much bigger than an iPhone; if we want to use them to store energy from solar and wind farms, they’ll need to be house-sized.
Carbon prices could be a brilliant way of incentivising cuts to emissions – but only if the price is right. That was the verdict of a World Bank report published last week. The paper says that most carbon pricing schemes are set “below the levels needed to drive significant decarbonization.” There’s a long way to go: the IMF estimates that the global average carbon price sits at around $2 per ton of CO2 – woefully short of the $40-80 level that’s recommended to encourage cuts in emissions. Carbon pricing won’t work unless it actually hurts.
Case by case
Eight highschoolers and an 86-year-old nun won an argument that the Australian government has a duty of care to ensure that coal mining projects won’t harm future generations. The Australian Federal Court upheld that duty, but didn’t pass an injunction that would stop a big new coal mining project going ahead. Two activists are taking the Guyanese government to court too, saying that granting oil exploration licences to companies like Exxon Mobil contravenes their right – and the rights of younger generations – to live in a healthy environment. Like the Dutch lawsuit, these cases rest on a “duty of care” argument, and like that case they’ll help advance the law.
The Biden administration promised to halve America’s fossil fuel emissions by 2030 but now it’s backing a controversial oil and gas drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope. The Trump administration approved the multi-billion dollar plan mere months before Joe Biden took office. Activists opposed to the project sued the federal government, arguing that it hadn’t properly taken into account the threat to wildlife and the climate when it authorised the project. They hoped the new president would roll back Trump’s decision once he reached the White House. He didn’t. Instead his government fought in favour of the drilling plan in court last week. Political analysts say this is just part of the reality of governing. Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican, supports the North Slope plan – it’ll bring jobs and money to her state. Biden needs her on side to push other policy changes through Congress, so he can’t fight her on this. But to environmentalists that’s not good enough: “I get that they’re being pressured politically. I get that there are thin margins,” Drew Caputo, a lawyer for Earthjustice, told the NYT. “But the climate crisis doesn’t care about any of that stuff.”
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