Energy giant Royal Dutch Shell faced its first court hearing on Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by environmental and human rights groups in The Hague, the company’s headquarters.
As the legal case over the company’s planet-heating emissions kicks off, activists said the health and livelihoods of people in Nigeria’s oil-producing region would hinge on its outcome.
The legal battle, led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, is the latest in a string of cases around the world in which activists are using the courtroom as a venue to fight for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from governments and companies.
In the Niger Delta, community members who said the oil giant’s activities had worsened their health for decades were hopeful the multinational might be forced to step up action.
“People are suffering. Our environment is our life,” said Jonah Gbemre, an activist from the town of Iwhrekan who sued Shell 15 years ago over its practice of gas flaring, which he said causes eye and breathing problems and reduces crop yields.
“People are sick. Personally, I have eye problems,” he said.
ActionAid, another rights group involved in the case, said it hoped a ruling would bring relief for vulnerable communities in the Niger Delta and other parts of the world.
“For us, it’s about the destruction that happens, which pollutes air, water, and affects their livelihood options,” said Harjeet Singh, ActionAid’s global climate lead.
“It’s governments who are supposed to be clamping down on (oil companies) but that’s not happening,” he said. “That’s why we really wanted to bring it to court.”
Shell ranked ninth on a list of corporations with the highest greenhouse gas emissions globally from 1988-2015, according to a study by CDP Worldwide, an environmental charity.
The case was filed on behalf of more than 17,000 Dutch citizens who say Shell is threatening human rights by knowingly undermining international climate goals.
They are demanding the company stop extracting oil and gas and align its business plan with a Paris Agreement aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which they say would mean Shell cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands director Donald Pols said the lawsuit had potentially significant consequences for the climate and the fossil fuel industry globally.
“We are confident that the judge’s final verdict will force Shell to adhere to international climate goals and stop causing dangerous climate change,” Pols said.
“This is a historic moment because we are backed by so many people. This is actually ‘the People versus Shell’, a company that has got away with greenwashing for too long. This case will make it clear to everyone that more than 95% of what Shell does is causing dangerous climate change. This has to change as soon as possible.”
The district court of The Hague plans to hold public hearings for the case on December 1, 3, 15 and 17.
Rita Osakwe/ Thomson Reuters Foundation