Dutch Court First to Order an Oil Company to Slash Net Emissions

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Pictures of plaintiffs fly outside the court where Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of the Friends of the Earth environmental organization, took Shell to court in The Hague, Netherlands, on May 26, 2021. Judges were to render their verdict in landmark legal battle of climate change activists in the Netherlands who went to court seeking an order for energy giant Shell to rein in its carbon emissions.  (AP Photo via NPR/Peter Dejong)

Climate change activists have won a big legal victory against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. A Dutch court ruled Wednesday that the company must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030, based on 2019 levels.

The case could set a precedent for similar lawsuits against huge oil companies that operate across the globe.

"Our hope is that this verdict will trigger a wave of climate litigation against big polluters, to force them to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels," said Sara Shaw of Friends of the Earth International.

The 2030 goal affirmed by the court is more ambitious than Shell's target of becoming "a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050." Shell argues the 2050 goal is in line with the Paris climate accord. But The Hague District Court determined Shell's plans were not adequate.

The ruling applies to Shell and its suppliers and covers not only the companies' emissions, but also emissions from products burned by its customers.


"This is a monumental victory for our planet, for our children and a big leap towards a livable future for everyone," said Donald Pols, director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

In a statement, Shell spokesperson Anna Arata acknowledged that "urgent action is needed on climate change," and said the company has accelerated efforts to reduce emissions. The oil giant is "investing billions of dollars in low-carbon energy, including electric vehicle charging, hydrogen, renewables and biofuels," Arata said.

The decision comes after scientists have said most of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

This month the U.S. Supreme Court sided with major oil companies in a climate change lawsuit brought by the city of Baltimore. Justices delivered a victory to the oil giants on a technical issue — that the case should be heard in federal court instead of state court, as the city preferred. There are about a dozen similar lawsuits that U.S. state and local governments have brought.

Seven environmental groups filed the lawsuit against Shell, including Friends of the Earth Netherlands, or Milieudefensie, Greenpeace and Fossil Free Netherlands. The lawsuit also named 17,000 Dutch citizens as co-plaintiffs.

Royal Dutch Shell is based in The Hague, where the case was heard. Shell can still appeal the ruling, something the company said it expects to do. The Dutch judge said the more ambitious target for the company will remain in effect while the appeals process plays out.

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