How is the climate crisis being tackled in UK courts?

The success of the landmark climate lawsuit against fossil fuel company Shell serves as a reminder that companies and governments can be held accountable for their failure to protect the environment. IF senior researcher Melissa Bui outlines a number of ongoing climate lawsuits that are bringing forward similar legal challenges upon the government and key polluters within the UK.

Climate cases have been on the rise over the past few years. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the number of climate cases being brought to court has increased from 884 to 1,550 between 2017 to 2020, representing almost a doubling of figures over the course of just three years.

The most recent high-profile court case to grace our news feed was the ruling by the Netherlands court which requires the oil giant Shell to reduce its global emissions by 45% (compared to 2019 levels) by 2030. This is supposedly the first time a company is being legally required to align its policies with the Paris Agreement.

Amongst the sea of bad news, this ruling is a refreshing reminder that organisations and governments can be held accountable for their polluting activities. To keep the ball rolling, we have compiled a summary of three ongoing climate lawsuits and complaints in the UK to keep an eye out for.

A challenge to BP

The ruling in the Netherlands comes after a new wave of climate lawsuits filed against highly polluting companies, for instance those involved in producing and burning oil and past. In 2019, Shell was labelled as one of the world’s largest polluters, with the company’s activities, alongside the activities of 19 other firms, accounting for a third of global emissions.

In the UK, the British environmental group ClientEarth is challenging BP another company that made the list that year – with a complaint that claims its advertising campaigns launched in 2019 violated the OECD’s guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The complaint alleges that BP published misleading information about its low-carbon energy activities and thus did not fulfil their responsibility to communicate transparently and honestly with the public. The claims in question include an inaccurate figure of the company’s emissions saving against coal combustion and the assertion.

ClientEarth has warned that other fossil fuel companies may soon face the same challenge. Since filing their complaint, the organisation has worked with DeSmog, which is a platform for investigative journalism into environmental issues, to track misleading advertising activities being carried out by other polluters. Earlier this year they launched the Greenwashing Files, a digestible summary of the greenwashing activities carried out by eight fossil fuel companies, including Drax, ExxonMobile, Chevron and Shell.

Unsurprisingly, Drax’s controversial claim that they can remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through burning biomass were amongst the claims facing scrutiny. The aim of this campaign is to persuade the government to introduce a ban on fossil fuel advertisements until they are accompanied by a health warning similar to the requirements already imposed on the tobacco industry.

Paid to Pollute campaign

A new campaign called Paid to Pollute has also been set up to raise awareness and boost support for a climate lawsuit set up against the government for “propping up the fossil fuel industry” in the North Sea through public subsidies. The three claimants behind the campaign argue that the government’s policy on “maximising economic recovery” has set the nation on course to burn three times its fair share of oil and gas as outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Many companies have continued to cut jobs despite receiving hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies, weakening the arguments of critics who defend the need to protect jobs within the industry.

The campaign website points to the near $100 million fund awarded to Shell, which was followed by a $7 million payout to its CEO as well as plans to cut 300 jobs, as a key example of the government’s unjust handout of public money during the pandemic crisis.

On the other side of the coin, latest figures from the Office for National Statistics’ UK Environmental Accounts demonstrates that the contribution of the fossil fuel industry to public finances fell in 2020, meaning there is less money available to invest in environmental protection. Total government revenue from environmental taxes dropped by 20% from £52.6 to £43.7 billion in 2020, which is the lowest level it has been since 2013.

Supporters can contribute to the campaign by signing a pre-written letter addressed to the Prime Minister and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, calling on the government to redirect public funds towards the green industry instead. 

Young people vs UK government

Also challenging the government are a group of young activists who are taking the government to court on the grounds that it has failed to produce an adequate plan that directs the nation towards its legally binding net-zero target. With the support of environmental group Plan B, they are requesting a judicial review of the government’s plans to cut emissions, with the view that the government is not meeting its legal obligations outlined under the Human Rights Act, the Paris Agreement and international law.

Their case emphasises how the Prime Minister’s “10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” only commits a fraction of the spending needed to combat the climate crisis in line with the Paris Agreement. Although the plan outlines £12 billion in spending to be set towards investing in clean energy, transport and nature, it is claimed that only £4 billion of this pledge reflects new spending.

The activists compare this to the billions of pounds that have been awarded to improve the road network (£27 billion), in condition-free loans to fossil fuel companies (£4 billion) and towards a new liquid natural gas project in Mozambique (£1 billion).

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash