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Climate change litigation increasing globally since 2015, report finds

The amount of climate change litigation from activists has nearly doubled since 2015 with a run of important wins in the last year, a report has found.

Researchers from the London School of Economics found that just over 800 cases were filed globally between 1986 and 2014, while over 1,000 cases have been brought in the last six years.

The number of ‘strategic’ cases is also on the rise. These are cases that aim to bring about some broader societal shift, as well as cases that challenge government inaction or lack of ambition in climate goals.

The study suggested that the fossil fuel industry could be a particular focus for future litigation, especially related to cases around government subsidies or tax relief for the sector.

“The number of ‘strategic’ cases is dramatically on the rise,” the report said, referring to activist cases that aim to bring about a broad shift in policy.

“Litigation that is aligned with climate goals is on balance seeing success and there has been a run of important wins in the last 12 months.”

A ruling from a Dutch court in May, for example, ordered Shell to significantly improve upon its promises to cut emissions after environmental groups said its actions threatened human rights.

The firm finally laid out its carbon reduction plan in February of this year, but campaigners swiftly criticised the firm’s decision not to cut upstream production and lay the onus of decarbonisation on customers.

“There is more diversity in the arguments being used, incorporating, for example, themes of greenwashing and fiduciary duty. Businesses need to be aware of litigation risk,” the report said.

Forcing governments to comply with their own climate change commitments is a tool increasingly being used by campaigners. The most common grounds for arguments of this type were based in constitutional or administrative law, followed by human rights arguments and, in rare cases, tort law, which are cases that cause a claimant to suffer loss or harm.

The report’s authors said they expected that the litigation trend would continue to grow, reflecting the increasing urgency with which the climate crisis is viewed by the general public.

“We also expect the range of claims and defendants to continue to diversify, reflecting an increased understanding of the role that multiple actors will need to play in the transition to a net-zero global economy,” they said.

In particular, it is likely that more litigation will be brought against financial market actors and major emitters that fail to adopt serious long-term strategies.

In September 2020, BP stated in its annual report about the future of energy that global oil demand has passed its peak forever. The firm - in line with many leading institutional investors - advised pivoting to more sustainable, renewable forms of energy, as fossil fuels begin their inevitable decline.


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