Fossil fuel industry faces surge in climate lawsuits

The world’s most polluting companies are increasingly being targeted by lawsuits challenging their inaction on climate change and attempts to spread misinformation, according to a new report.

Research by the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment found a surge in legal cases against the fossil fuel industry over the past year – especially outside the US – and growing action in other corporate sectors.

People have been filing legal challenges on climate change grounds since the mid-1980s, but it is a strategy that has recently come into its own. The number of climate change-related litigation lawsuits around the world has more than doubled since 2015 and roughly one quarter of the 2,002 recorded cases to date were filed in the past two years alone.

Most of those lawsuits are challenging state inaction, many inspired by the landmark 2019 ruling that ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions.

But the fossil fuel industry is increasingly within the sights of campaigners. At least 13 cases have been filed against the largest Europe-based polluters and at least two in Australia against gas company Santos. Exxon, Eni and Sasol are all also involved in challenges to government decisions about oil and gas exploration and licensing in Guyana and South Africa.

The food and agriculture, transport, plastics and finance sectors are increasingly targets as well, the report finds.

Many of these cases attempt to tackle greenwashing, while litigants are increasingly drawing connections “between ongoing public debates about the contribution that individuals’ consumer and lifestyle choices can make to reducing emissions and widespread concern that industry misinformation and inaction may prevent such choices from making a real difference”.

Climate litigation has not seen any success in the UK yet, with all judicial reviews of government policy so far failing in court. The latest case, which challenges the government’s net zero strategy, was heard in June and a decision is expected over the next few months.

But around the world it has proved an effective strategy for boosting climate action. Climate litigation was identified in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report as one of several important new avenues through which climate policy is being shaped around the world.

As well as forcing countries such as Germany to redraw their emission strategies, legal challenges have had tangible impacts in the private sector. South Korean export credit agency Kexim, for example, recently announced it would delay its final decision on whether to finance a gas project off the shore of Australia two weeks after traditional owners filed a case challenging it. It cited “environmental and legal risks” as the reason.

Report authors Joana Setzer, assistant professorial research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute, and Catherine Higham, a policy analyst and coordinator of its Climate Change Laws of the World project, expect a continued rise in litigation challenging commitments that over-rely on greenhouse gas removal or “negative emissions” technologies, as well as cases explicitly linking climate and biodiversity.

And they predict other high-emitting sectors such as steel and cement, textiles, shipping and aviation will be the next corporate targets.

Their research also suggests companies should brace for claims focusing on personal responsibility (such as the duties of company directors to manage climate risks) and international lawsuits on loss and damage.

However, the report is a reminder that not all lawsuits seek to advance action on the climate crisis. Energy companies have made numerous attempts to sue governments over policies that might harm their projects under the energy charter treaty – a treaty that is itself now the subject of a climate-related lawsuit brought by a group of young people.

And the US supreme court is imminently expected to rule on a group of cases that could have serious implications for the country’s ability to respond to the climate emergency.

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