Friends of the Earth may target banks after milestone victory against Shell

Friends of the Earth Netherlands, an environmental group which won a landmark climate court case against Royal Dutch Shell in May, said it may target the banks that finance polluting companies.

Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, celebrates after a Dutch court in May ordered Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to drastically slash its greenhouse emissions by 2030. The groundbreaking ruling has already led to similar court cases against big polluting companies elsewhere. Bart Hoogveld

That’s according to Marty Smits, chair of Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie), which brought the groundbreaking case against Shell together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and other organisations including Greenpeace NL and ActionAid.

“We are just getting ready to engage all system-relevant large polluters,” Smits told a virtual panel at the annual conference of the Brussels-based European Venture Philanthropy Association (EVPA) held last week.
“And those are also financial services players that are funding climate emissions against their own stated ambitions.”

Milestone ruling

In May a district court in The Hague ordered Shell to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by the end of 2030 compared to 2019 levels.

The milestone Dutch ruling was made on the grounds that the oil giant is in violation of human rights by contributing to global warming. It marked the first time a court had imposed a legal obligation on a private company to reduce its CO2 emissions.

Smits said there was “no time to waste” after “decades of finding reasons not to act.”
“We're now in the phase that actually we don't have time to do careful, long elaborate planning,” he added. “Now, it's just action mode. We're impatient and blunt if you engage us.”

Who’s next?

The ruling has set a precedent for climate change court cases elsewhere. In France, a similar court case is being brought against French oil and gas giant Total.

Greenpeace and German environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe said in September they plan to take German car makers Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and gas and oil firm Wintershall Dea to court if they do not improve their policies to tackle climate change.

The Shell ruling “gives us the ammunition to now engage with other large polluters in the Netherlands and basically ask them a simple question: ‘A judge has told a fellow large corporation that you need to be Paris-proof. Are you Paris proof?’,” Smits said.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement vowed to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

“And if not, how will you get there? Because otherwise you are open to litigation not only by us, but also by any other Dutch citizen with an interest,” Smits said.

“And we believe that this will actually accelerate and mobilise, especially the front runners in those large corporations, and basically force the heaviest emitters to participate,” Smits said.

Shell appeal

Shell said in July it would appeal the verdict. “We agree urgent action is needed and we will accelerate our transition to net zero,” Shell chief executive officer Ben van Beurden said in a statement on the company website at the time.

“But we will appeal because a court judgment, against a single company, is not effective. What is needed is clear, ambitious policies that will drive fundamental change across the whole energy system,” the CEO said.

“Climate change is a challenge that requires both urgent action and an approach that is global, collaborative and encourages coordination between all parties.”

Targeting the laggards

With Dutch greenhouse gas emissions “twice the average EU emissions per capita,” Smits said it was crucial his organisation targeted the worst polluters.

“It's our belief that if we want to allow the front runners to really lead and to go far ahead, they need for us to actually make sure the laggards follow,” he said.

“You need to cut the tail, because otherwise it becomes very difficult to compete on costs and to survive as new entrants against lagging old, corporate beasts.”