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A group of climate activists who have been cycling around the Netherlands to draw attention to their case against Shell arrived at the Court of Justice on December 1, 2020. (Photo: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Friends of the Earth vs. Shell: 'Historic Moment' as Climate Movement Takes on Big Oil at The Hague

"This is actually 'the People versus Shell,' a company that has got away with greenwashing for too long."

Julia Conley

Representing more than 17,000 claimants who support climate action, the international organization Friends of the Earth on Tuesday opened its case against fossil fuel giant Shell at The Hague by demanding that a judge order the corporation to significantly reduce its carbon emissions in the next decade.

Milieudefensie, the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, says Shell has broken the law in The Netherlands by knowingly standing in the way of the country's phase-out of fossil fuels. Shell says it has set a goal of cutting its emissions to net zero by 2050, but the group is demanding a more rapid reduction. 

"We are relying on the Dutch courts to protect communities around the globe," tweeted Nils Mollema, a policy advisor at ActionAid, which is supporting Milieudefensie in the case. 

The case comes five years after the Dutch government was ordered to reduce its emissions by at least 25% from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. Under the Paris climate agreement, the European Union has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. 

"The main argument of Shell is that everybody is responsible: the consumer, the state, the international community, everybody is responsible except Shell, except the biggest polluter of the Netherlands, one of the 10 biggest polluters in the world."
—Donald Pols, Milieudefensie

"The claimants therefore conclude that Royal Dutch Shell's corporate policy is on collision course with global climate targets," Roger Cox, a lawyer representing Milieudefensie in the civil case, told a panel of three judges at The Hague District Court on Tuesday. 

The organization has vehemently rejected Shell's defense in the case, in which the multinational corporation is suggesting that it is no more responsible for solving the climate emergency than other businesses or individuals.

"What will accelerate the energy transition is effective policy, investment in technology, and changing customer behavior," Shell said Tuesday as the first of four days of hearings began. "None of which will be achieved with this court action."

Cox noted in his opening remarks that Shell is responsible for about 1.2% of the planet's industrial fossil fuel emissions.

"The main argument of Shell is that everybody is responsible: the consumer, the state, the international community, everybody is responsible except Shell, except the biggest polluter of the Netherlands, one of the 10 biggest polluters in the world," said Donald Pols, director of Milieudefensie, on Monday. "And we are going to change that."

The case opened a month after Shell drew outrage from climate action campaigners by posting a poll on its official Twitter account, asking ordinary citizens what they plan to do to help mitigate the climate crisis. 

"I'm willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuels emissions would destroy our planet," U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) replied at the time, denouncing the company's "audacity."

On Monday, Pols called the opening of the case at The Hague "a historic moment."

"This is actually 'the People versus Shell,' a company that has got away with greenwashing for too long," he said in statement. "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.” 

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