Climate change: How legal action is being used to make countries and companies take global warming seriously – Dr Richard Dixon

Legal action on climate change is stepping up a gear, with those in charge of oil companies now in the firing line.

Three years ago, in one of my more feisty columns, I said top oil industry people should be in jail for crimes against humanity. Some people liked this idea, many thought it went too far. It also created an awkward conversation with a top oil industry person of my acquaintance…

In a step in this direction, this month legal campaigning group ClientEarth began an action against Shell’s 11 board members for failing to change strategy to reduce emissions. The action in the High Court of England and Wales is supported by a group of pension funds, assessment managers and banks who hold shares in Shell.

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Under their current strategy, the company’s emissions are expected to fall by only five per cent by 2030, rather than the 45 per cent ordered by a Dutch court two years ago, and Shell continues to refuse to take any responsibility for the emissions resulting from the use of their products.

A few weeks ago, my column was in the form of a report from aliens watching the Earth from afar and baffled by our behaviour. In particular, they could not understand how we could allow the oil industry to spread lies about climate change for decades without ever punishing anyone, nor how we could allow them to carry on with record profits and plans to extract ever more oil.

Governments would like you to think that they are helpless to stop big businesses from continuing to trash the planet. But, of course, this is not true. The UK Government is planning to issue 100 more licences for new oil and gas extraction.

Taking the opposite stance, the UK Government could issue no new licences and start a rapid phase-out of oil and gas production, ending fossil fuel use within a decade. The UK Government has imposed a windfall tax on the oil and gas industry of £5 billion over the next five years, but with a discount for extracting more oil… Shell alone made £5bn profit in just six weeks of 2022.

I have written before about legal challenges to governments, particularly the UK and Dutch court judgement that national climate plans are not strong enough. Since then, a group of young people in Germany have developed earlier court cases into a new challenge to strengthen plans on climate-friendly land use.

Climate change activists are taking to the courts as well as the streets (Picture: Omer Messinger/Getty Images)Climate change activists are taking to the courts as well as the streets (Picture: Omer Messinger/Getty Images)
Climate change activists are taking to the courts as well as the streets (Picture: Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Another group of young people in Sweden are taking a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights, aiming to require their government to strengthen climate targets and plans. Part of this case includes the impact of climate change anxiety on young people’s mental health. And Finland, with the toughest net-zero target in Europe, is being taken to court over failings to control increasing tree felling and other changes which mean that the target cannot be met.

International targets, like those in the Paris Agreement, are great as long as efforts are made to actually meet them. There are now more than 2,000 climate court cases around the world and it may be that only legal systems can really make countries, companies and CEOs take climate change seriously.

Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant



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