Appeal starts on whether Shell can be liable for customers' emissions

THE HAGUE - The Hague Court of Appeals will start handling the appeal in a lawsuit Milieudefensie filed against oil and gas giant Shell, holding the company responsible for greenhouse gas emissions caused by the use of its products. Three years ago, the court ruled that Shell must reduce its own emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and make “maximum efforts” to significantly reduce its customers’ emissions. Shell appealed. 

Milieudefensie filed this case in 2019, arguing that Shell, as one of the biggest players in the fuel market, is responsible for more annual global emissions than many countries. The company has long known that CO2 is the main cause of climate change, but its climate plans to reduce emissions are inadequate and vague, the environmental group argued. 

In 2021, the court in The Hague ruled in Milieudefensie’s favor. It is part of Shell’s “duty of care” to limit emissions more quickly, including those caused by customers using its products. 

Duty of care is an unwritten standard from the cellar hatch ruling in 1965, NOS reports. In short, the Supreme Court ruled that the person who opens a cellar hatch is responsible for the danger this poses to passers-by. In that specific case, a Coca-Cola employee opened a hatch, and someone fell through into the cellar and got hurt. According to that reasoning, Shell is also responsible for the consequences of emissions and should take measures against them. 

Shell, obviously, disagrees. The company says it endorses that action is needed against climate change but believes that it is up to the government to determine, not the court. “We do not believe that a court ruling against one company is the right solution for the transition to cleaner energy,” said Frans Everts, CEO of Shell Netherlands. 

The fossil fuel giant argues that it already complies with environmental and climate legislation, and a court order to do more will only lead to its market share being taken over by other oil companies as long as customer demand does not decrease. CEO Wael Sawan pointed to the recent energy crisis as proof of this point - a decrease in supply without a decrease in demand leads to high prices for consumers. 

Milieudefensie is confident that the appeals court will rule in its favor again. “The factual base has only continued to grow, and there has been no scientific backward step anywhere,” director Donald Pols said. The environmental group submitted 650 additional pieces of evidence, updates on climate science, and new expert statements for the appeal. 

The group also pointed to the developments of Shell’s climate plans since the first ruling as proof that the company cannot be left up to its own devices. Shell recently announced that it would lower its target for reducing CO2 emissions by 2030 from 20 to 15 percent. It won’t reduce its oil production, and gas production will be expanded.