Climate change litigation is growing as individuals, environmentalists and organisations take on corporate entities or countries seen as violating climate change best practices. This is occurring mainly in the energy sector, though agriculture and food industries have also been targeted over claims of greenwashing. There have been almost 1400 climate-related litigation cases around the world to date. Most are brought in the West, with a handful in emerging countries. In May 2021 a court in the Netherlands found in favour of the plaintiffs after environmental group Friends of the Earth and six other organisations backed up by 17,000 Dutch citizens demanded that Shell cut its carbon emission levels to align with the Paris climate agreement. In a similar case, South Africa’s High Court sided with indigenous communities to block any seismic surveys on the Wild Coast by Shell.
Why is it important?
Litigation is becoming an important tool for holding companies and governments to account for their contribution to global warming. This burgeoning trend can pose a litigation risk to businesses and governments. A quantitative review of the outcomes of all decided cases in the Climate Change Laws of the World database found that 58% of cases had outcomes favourable to climate change action. These include court sanction of entities that deliberately put out disinformation, also known as greenwashing, and those that fail to disclose and manage climate change risk. Cases have also targeted specific projects like Shell’s exploration of the Wild Coast.
What can businesses do about it?
70% of Global Fortune 500 companies still don’t have a meaningful climate plan designed to achieve or be well on the way to net-zero emissions by 2030. Sue Garrard, a sustainability consultant and former Unilever executive said, “Most companies aren’t thinking about litigation as a significant issue, despite the fact that the basis for lawsuits is shifting and broadening as people understand more about climate risks.” It is vital that businesses develop and implement their own climate plans; failure to do so could precipitate climate litigation. In addition, businesses should take care not to mislead the public about steps they’re taking to mitigate climate change. Dishonesty will not go unnoticed and could lead to reputational damage with financial implications.
By Faeeza Khan
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Image credit: Li-An Lim