Episode 22: How 17,000 people took Shell to court – and won

  Published:  28 Sep 2021
In summer 2021, in a ground-breaking ruling, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030.

The case was brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands, alongside 17,000 co-plaintiffs and other organisations.

In this episode, Fran and Finn speak to Nine de Pater from Friends of the Earth Netherlands to hear about the case and how these changes can have a wide impact on our planet.

How to Save the Planet podcast will be taking a short break. We'll be back with more interviews in 2022. Thanks for listening!

Fran: Hi and welcome to Friends of the Earth’s podcast How to Save the Planet, I'm Fran and I'm joined by Finn today. Hey Finn!

Finn: Hey Fran, how's it going? 

Fran: Yeah, good thanks. You’ve started a new role haven’t you?

Finn: I have indeed, so I’ve started as the international activism officer with Friends of the earth… naturally with friends of the earth because otherwise why else would i be on this podcast! 

Fran: Well it feeds very nicely into todays episode which is going to be looking into an international element of our network 

Finn: Yeah for sure. Climate has been on everyone's minds recently certainly been on mine a lot more recently and more than I’ve ever seen before with friends and family. A lot of that is probably down to the extreme weather we’ve seen. The deadly floods in and around Germany sort of really struck a chord with a lot of people in the UK. Same with the really intense forest fires that have been, you know going on across the world -

Fran: They are everywhere aren’t they 

Finn: Yeah - it’s never really on our radar to the same extent the effects of climate breakdown in poorer countries across the world. For instance Madagascar is now on the brink of a climate induced famine. I think it’s the first climate induced famine the UN has said and this is due to the fact there has been no rain in the country for four years. And it’s really important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people in Madagascar have not contributed meaningfully to the climate crisis at all and that's why its an issue of justice at its core. The people who get hit first and hardest by this crisis are the ones that haven’t caused it  and the ones that don’t have the resources to actually respond to it and the drivers of the crisis come from the rich parts of the world and come from very powerful sectors of society, and that’s something we’ll explore today. 

Fran: And then we were followed this summer by the UN climate report, the IPPC report, that came out that was a fresh reminder of the small window we have to come up with some climate solutions - to act on them actually not come up with them because we know what they are - some of the change we need will hopefully be seen, in a few months time at the un climate talks that will be hosted in Glasgow it's the perfect time to be putting pressure on securing the action we need. It’s our government that’s hosting it but at the same time proposed oil fields in the north sea and a coal mine in Cumbria, still funding fossil fuel projects abroad in places like Mozambique. They can’t claim to the leaders that they say they are on climate whilst they finance these kinds of projects.

So Friends of the Earth will be joining hundreds of other organisations and hosting events both online and offline and a global day of action - Saturday 6 November. So please do watch out for more details about how you can get involved.

Finn: I encourage anyone who is listening to get in touch with a group nearby or with an event nearby for the global day of action, even if you just want to go by and watch and see what it’s about. Groups that are doing something for the day will be more than happy to have you along.

Takeclimateaction.uk has a whole section on the UN climate talks, so you can find out a little more.

Fran: If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration then  today's episode we will be looking at a success. A massive win for people and planet when a dutch court ruled that oil giant Shell must reduce its emissions by 45% in the next 9 years, by 2030. 

This is the first time a judge has held a corporation liable for climate impacts and today's guest is Nina de parta from the Netherlands from Milieudefensie - sorry about the pronunciation there… 

Who filed the case alongside other organisations and thousands of individual claimants. She’s going to tell us about the case and what it means for the future. 

Fran: Before we get the interview, just wanted to let you know this will be our last episode for a little while. We’ll be taking a break until the new year when we’ll be back with more great episodes exploring the campaigning work from friends of the earth and people fighting to save the planet. Now let’s hear from Nine. 

Nine, do you want to start off by introducing yourself and saying a little bit about what you do. 

Nine: I am Nine de Pater, I work for Friends of the Earth Netherlands, we’re called Milieudefensie, and I am working on the court case against Shell. 

My role is basically to make sure everything we say in the court case was correct, was scientifically right and makes sure that the campaign was well coordinated with the legal case. 

Finn: How long had you been working on the case for?

Nine: Before we won I think  5 years of preparation. I came in a little bit later, I worked for Milieudefensie for three and half years. 

Finn: Could you tell us what the result was and a quick word on what the case was. 

Nine: A couple of years ago we decided we could not wait any longer for Shell, the big oil and gas company to take its responsibility by itself - we tried through campaigns and lobbying and all different tactics but nothing really changed. 

We saw one more resource and that was going to court. So we sued Shell in a climate court case where we asked the judge to force Shell to reduce its CO2 emissions. 

We did not ask for money or compensation, we mainly asked for Shell to reduce their CO2 emissions. That was back in 2018 and then the whole legal procedure started. There was a lot of written argumentation. 

We had our hearings in December 2020 and then in May there was the verdict and yeah, we won. The judge agreed with us and now Shell has to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 so they have 9 years to almost half their emissions. 

This day was amazing. Of course there were Covid restrictions. We were not able to be there with the whole team. You want to have an audience normally but that was not possible so we were there with a very small team just the lawyers, our director, and the people who were working on the legal argumentation and I was one of the lucky ones allowed to be in the courtroom it was amazing to be there of course, it was a historical win. 

I have been working on it so hard we made a lot of extra hours to get everything done and then this was the best outcome we could possibly hope for. 

Fran: I can well imagine! 

Nine: There were a lot of tears, a lot of smiles

Fran: I can imagine when the restrictions ease a bit there's going to be a big celebration. 

Nine: Yeah

Fran: This isn’t the first time an organisation has tried to take Shell to court, is it?

Nine: Yeah, that’s right. Especially in the United States there are quite a few court cases against Shell but they are all very different from ours because they are about damages that come from climate changes and then compensation to pay for those damages. What we did is a very different approach which is to say what is most needed now -  is that Shell reduced its CO2 emissions so that's what we asked for. But yeah there are more cases against Shell, mostly in the United States also about climate change and their knowledge. 

Finn: I wonder, could you maybe say a little more about that? 

Nine: Yeah, this was also a big part of our argumentation. There is a lot of evidence that shows that Shell knew about impacts of climate change already in the early eighties and earlier in the sixties we found documents - internal documents from Shell talking about climate change. Then, in the eighties they published a very good report about climate change. About the causes of climate change and also the impact of climate change and that showed that Shell knew very well

Instead of changing their business model and warning everyone they decided to keep it quiet and even counter climate policy. Lobbying against climate policy and they improved the structure of their oil platforms to make them resilient to rising sea levels or heavy storms. 

Shell did the opposite of what they should have done and instead of reducing their CO2 emissions they only kept on growing. That was a big part of our case and luckily some journalists in the Netherlands were able to get these internal documents from Shell that showed their internal knowledge. 

Finn: It often feels like when you are involved in this work there are sort of two fronts that the fossil fuel industry are egregious, just expanding it’s a business model all the time and what its known about climate change historically and only digging in deeper with a system that's put us bang in the middle of a crisis. And the other one as well, the human rights abuses that the fossil fuel industry is often involved in. One of the famous ones, in relation to Shell is the Ogoni nine and the assassination of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria of course there is a Friends of the Earth organisation in Nigeria who would be involved in this and very up on it and there’s actually a room in our Friends of the Earth office that is named after Ken Sara-Wiwa. So it seems like it would be really interesting to hear if you drew from that story in your campaigning and what happened in that case in the Niger Delta.

Nine: Well yeah, we have been doing another court case against Shell that was specifically about their impacts in Nigeria. So Shell has for 60 or maybe even longer getting oil offshore from Nigeria and that has caused a lot of problems. 

There have been a lot of oil leakages and corruptions and people are still living, in what I would call a hell, because of the oil that is everywhere. So they are not able to go fishing, crops cannot go, so farming is almost impossible. People are getting sick from the oil pollution in their drinking water. 

Almost everyday there are new messages about places where new oil leaks come out of the pipes and that's all Shell property. So Shell has brought a lot of horrible stuff to Nigeria and ruined a big part of the Niger Delta. I think the area that is polluted with oil is nearly as big as the Netherlands. Imagine how large this area is and people are not able to make a living there. Child death is extremely high in this area. Much higher than the rest of Nigeria and Shell is not taking responsibility to clean up these leakages. 

Many years ago there were groups protesting this and their leaders were killed by what they say is their Government and everything shows that Shell was involved in this. So there is a case right now a case that the widows of these men are taking against Shell to get their justice, so that’s one thing. But another victory actually we had in 2021, in January it was a court case that was going on for 13 years with Nigerian farmers against Shell headquarters based in the Netherlands and that’s why we worked together with these Nigerian farmers. 

We finally won the case which means that Shell has to pay compensation to the victims, to the farmers and the other people in the village and clean up the mess. So that was also a big victory actually. 

And this is only one village and we know the area is much bigger than one village so this is not the end of problems in Nigeria but at least for the first time Shell was held responsible by a judge. This is what Shell does, at the local impact they don’t respect human rights they only go for more oil, more gas and we are really afraid this will happen in more places because Shell still really want to expand in the Global South. 

At the same time with climate change the judge in the climate case also said by continuing to emit co2 therefore causing dangerous climate change, Shell is also violating human rights in general because the climate crisis is a threat to human rights. 

Fran: That court case that you mentioned, we mentioned it in an earlier podcast about the win for the farmers and it was a really good demonstration of international pressure and working together with different groups. In this particular court case there were 17,000 plaintiffs. Who were these 17,000 plaintiffs that were working together with you and a few other organisations. Who were these 17,000 people?

Nine: Well, I don’t know all of them! 17,000 people who are living in the Netherlands so As long as you had a Dutch address you were able to join the court case. These people agreed with us that we had to draw a line and Shell cannot continue doing what it is doing. 

We had such a  great time getting all these people behind us we organised evenings in local pubs, we had discussion evening and anyone could sign up and all they had to do was pay one euro as a symbolic contribution to the court case and of course they gave us their address and signed the legal contract and year it showed that so many people were behind our case. 

Even after it wasn’t possible to sign up as a plaintiff as we had started the case and we had so  many messages from people ‘can i still join?’ or ‘if I cannot join the court case is it possible to donate? Because also many people gave more than one euro, they said ‘Oh, I want to give you more’. So almost the whole court case has been crowdfunded. So there are 17,000 plaintiffs but there are many more that supported us through the case.

Fran: That is just incredible that the court case was predominately crowdfunded and that you had 17,000 people joining you.

Finn: Yeah, it just sounds like it was so well done. Do you have any thoughts on why it's been difficult up until this point to hold fossil fuel companies to account?

Nine:  One of the main problems we have when it comes to polluting companies and climate policies is that these companies can find a loophole in the law in every country they are operating in. Maybe in the Netherlands Shell has to reduce its emissions but that is within the borders of the Netherlands and as soon as you look elsewhere maybe Shell has a lot of flexibility or more space to continue polluting. And that is one of the biggest challenges that we are all facing, it’s not just Shell it is all these fossil fuel companies that are multinationals and therefore not limited by the laws in one country so what these countries are doing is making sure their  so called scope 3 emissions, and that’s a bit of a difficult word, but that basically means the emissions by burning the fuels, so the emissions from customers. So when I buy gas from Shell and I burn it, these emissions are called scope 3.  

The emissions that are not directly linked to a factory or one specific  company within the borders are often not regulated and that's why these fossil fuel companies say that is not our responsibility we just sell the gas to the consumers and they burn it so that's their fault. You have to go to the consumer or you have to go to the government and that's why they were able to get away with it  for such a long time. 

We said in our court case Shell has their headquarters in the Netherlands and that's why we are able to go to court in the Netherlands and also go for the whole company, for the global company, not just Shell in the Netherlands, that is quite unique. It was the first time Shell was not able to hide behind these kind of argument that it is the fault of the government or the fault of the consumer. 

Finn: one thing I know the movement in the UK finds makes it hard to hold these companies in the UK accountable is these really slick PR machines they have. Sponsorship deals that they have there is one that is current news at the moment in the London where the Science museum has an exhibition that is actually sponsored by Shell and it’s called ‘our future planet’ and it has stuff about carbon capture and storage types of technology that generally hasn’t been invented or aren’t workable at scale at the moment. They are a solution that the fossil fuel industry trots out and the exhibition has some props from the youth strikers and some London based youth strikers and hold a protest and make a point about this and where escorted out by the police. 

Since then it has come to light that there has been a gagging order placed on staff who work in the science museum saying that no staff can say anything negative about Shell while they are working in the museum and it can only be a positive PR exercise and give a good spin

Fran: The irony being the science museum of all places 

Nine: They should know better!

Finn: Yeah, we know from the IPCC report this has to rapidly decline and we have to stop expanding the business models of these companies and we can’t keep looking for new reserves. The stuff we already have that these companies have found already is unburnable, we actually can’t burn it if we are going to stand a chance of avoiding really catastrophic warming. 

It’s probably worth mentioning this isn’t just specific to Shell all of the major oil companies do this and that's before getting into the fact they are still part of lobbying groups that actively pressure governments to stall any meaningful action on climate and it’s just shocking...

Nine: Lately we have been seeing so many signs of us winning but I really feel this is a victory of the climate movement, the movement against fossil fuel industry  

It gave so many people hope and I think that is one thing, apart from us getting closer to a fossil free society is the wins really give the climate movement hope to continue and go on. 

When we look at the difference in communication about the fossil fuel industry now compared to a few years ago. For example this IPCC report, secretary general of the UN said this leads to the end of the fossil fuel industry  and that is unique - two years ago it was a taboo to even talk about fossil fuel industry even at the climate conferences of the UN It was barely spoken of and a couple of years later and even though it is just some words of a guy who has a lot of influence but doesn't have the power to actually  end the industry, the fact he is saying this shows that we have made so much progression. These kinds of things show us we are on the right direction

Fran: yeah, definitely. Finn you mentioned then some of the actions you’ve participated in and i think that leads quite nicely into any plans Nine, that you guys have in Milieudefensie ahead of the UN climate talks in Glasgow

Nine: Well we are already focussing on the next step in this court case because our Shell announced to appeal. We are very confident that we will be able to stand in the higher court, but that of course is something we need to work on 

One of the things that came out of our win against Shell is that we can look into how to hold other companies accountable because there are many things within the verdict we can use against other  fossil fuel companies but also companies that are not fossil fuel companies but have a big carbon footprint. 

So I think the next step leading up to the climate talks is analysing  the verdict even more to see how we can use this verdict to hold other companies accountable and turn up the heat! Turn up the pressure so hopefully they change themselves before they have to go to court. 

Fran: That is the irony that in the past some of these climate talks have been sponsored by the fossil fuel industry. I remember a big action around a former climate talk  in Poland where the coal industry made a big impression. So it’s just irony after irony with these guys. 

Nine: It shows they are still very much accepted by our policy makers, we also want to increase the pressure on our Governments to no longer accept them to be on the table, to be part of the discussion especially those places where we are talking about climate change. 

Finn: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. Do you have any specific plans for the UN climate talks?

Nine:  Yeah in the Netherlands we will be joining the global mobilisation on the 6th November for a protest, we are preparing it with the coalition of all the different climate groups. It also depends on restrictions and I personally am going to Glasgow with a couple of colleagues to talk about this climate litigation and the impacts it can have and hopefully more cases will come out of it at the COP - Aside from lobbying our Government to take more ambitious climate policies and a better position within the negotiations and try to talk to others who might be interested in starting court cases and see how we can help them with all the lessons we've learnt. 

Fran: That will be really valuable sharing And that ends our chat with you and congratulations again on the incredible  win that you and your team secured and it really does pace the way for what else we can do to bring corporations to justice

Thank you so much for joining us 

Nine: Thank you for all of the hard work for preparing for all the action in November because I'm really looking forward to joining those. 

Fran: Yeah, maybe we’ll meet in real life! 

Finn: Thanks Nine, bye. 

Fran: Thanks so much for listening as you may have heard this is our last podcast for a while. In the meantime we’ll be busy planning for the global day of action and activities around the UN climate talks in Glasgow. Keep up to date with us at Takeclimateaction.uk