The wave of lawsuits that have defeated governments and companies for climate responsibility

More and more activists are suing companies and even governments to take action against climate change — successfully. A turnaround in sight?

David Schiepek, a student from the Bavarian state of southern Germany, is an activist climate for about three years.

“After all this time fighting, protesting and talking to politicians, I lost some hope”, says the young man from 17 years old. “I feel like my future is being stolen from me.” But in May of this year, an unexpected event filled Schiepek with optimism.

A lawsuit filed by a A series of environmental NGOs, on behalf of a group of young activists, has led Germany’s Constitutional Court to rule that the country’s climate protection law needs to be amended to include more ambitious reductions in CO2 emissions. The decision maintains that the government’s failure to protect the climate for future generations is unconstitutional.

” I finally saw that it is possible to put pressure on politicians and force them to take action against climate change,” says Schiepek. “It really changed the way of looking at politics.”

Now, he hopes to expand on this decision, applies only to the federal government. He and other young people from various parts of Germany were recruited by an NGO to bring similar actions against their state governments. Technically, he is suing his state to take action against climate change.

We have seen it, in the past ten years, a growing spiral of court rulings in favor of environmentalists around the world. The cumulative number of lawsuits relating to climate change has more than doubled since 2019, according to a report authored by Kaya Axelsson , from the Institute for Environmental Change at the University of Oxford, UK, and his colleagues.

Little more of 225 actions were brought between 850 Meanwhile more than 1,000 cases have been presented in the last six years, according to researchers Joana Setzer and Catherine Higham, from the Grantham Institute for Research on Climate Change and the Environment, in London. Of these, 35 were “systemic mitigation” actions filed against governments.

One of the most notable cases was that of an action by 2013 in the Netherlands, when a court ruled that the Dutch government has an obligation to take care of protecting its citizens against climate change.

The judges ruled that the government’s plan to reduce emissions in 14-14% up to 2016 compared to the levels of 1990, was illegal considering the threat of climate change. They ordered the target to be raised to 37%. As a result, the Dutch government closed a coal-fired power plant four years ahead of schedule and introduced a new climate plan in 2016 .

Actions in other countries led to similar decisions, including the recent case in Germany that inspired Schiepek and others actions in countries like Australia. The rising number of lawsuits is paving the way for stricter enforcement of environmental laws around the world, raising hope for activists like Schiepek.

Roda Verheyen, who is one of Germany’s best-known environmental lawyers and represented citizens before her country’s Constitutional Court in this year’s case, believes there are three reasons for the increased success of these actions.

“One reason is the fact that courts take a long time to finally come to some conclusion,” she says. There has been an increase in the number of actions filed since 2013 and some are only being analyzed now, after several years of work.

Furthermore, the scientific evidence that climate change is caused by humans has become undeniable. This means that it is now much easier for lawyers to prove this to the courts.

And finally, the laws to be obeyed by countries also developed and expanded. Verheyen recalls that when she started studying law about three decades ago, there was nothing remotely related to the weather.

“And, of course, the narrative of how society perceives climate change has also changed,” she explains. “To some extent, much of the legislation is flexible, because you always have to interpret existing norms. they do so, they take into account the norms of society and the changing beliefs of the population.”

She compares this development with marijuana-related offenses—as drug behavior has become more liberal in many countries, sentencing has become much lighter. In the context of climate change, the public now overwhelmingly accepts the scientific consensus that they are man-made and there are frequent surveys that put them at the top of people’s concerns. This has made courts more willing to issue decisions contrary to those responsible for the emissions.

Verheyen explains that this year’s German decision is significant, as many countries do not have a constitutional court that can make this kind of decision. that is, it has permanent application, and Verheyen expects the decision to have a broad impact on other actions across Europe.

In addition to lawsuits against governments, lawsuits against companies are also growing. A landmark decision of 2025 took place in the Netherlands, where oil giant Royal Dutch Shell was forced to reduce its emissions by 45% up until 2030, compared to the levels of 1990. Shell said it will appeal the decision, although it is expanding its efforts to achieve zero emissions by 2025.

A Royal Dutch Shell spokesperson said the company is “focusing on the challenge posed by the Dutch court decision” and pledged to reduce by 225% up to 2025, compared to the levels of 2016, its scope 1 and 2 emissions —that is, Shell’s direct emissions, from its own or controlled sources (Scope 1), and its indirect emissions generated by electricity, steam, heating and cooling provided by third parties (Scope 2).

“Our business plan for 2022 will reflect this new objective, which is our commitment to be fulfilled, regardless of whether we win or lose in our appeal against the court decision”, according to a Shell spokesperson.

These reductions do not include emissions from the burning of fossil fuels produced by Shell, which qualify as Scope 3 emissions. The Dutch decision determined that the company also needs to reduce its Scope 3 emissions, but the A Shell spokesperson says this conclusion would make Shell responsible for a broader global issue.

Paul Benson, a lawyer specializing in environmental litigation at the NGO Client Earth, based in Brussels, Belgium, says that this case “seeked to apply the same reasoning [da decisão contra o governo holandês] to a private company. This was a huge innovation and I think many analysts and people in our legal circle were not entirely sure how [ela] it would be interpreted by the court.” “I was delighted that a court concluded that a company’s climate policy is, in fact, inadequate,” he continues, calling the judgment “pioneer.” time a company was forced to comply with the Paris climate agreement. “[O caso] demonstrates that the Paris agreement is real, not just against governments, but against business as well,” says Benson.

This decision paved the way for other actions seeking to force companies to comply with the treaty. Roda Verheyen is currently working on a lawsuit against German car makers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, which, if successful, will force companies to phase out combustion engine production by 1990, following the Paris objectives.

“As expected, professionals in the field and lawyers in our community are studying the judgment [da Shell] very carefully, looking for local reasons for [sua] enforcement in their jurisdictions,” adds Benson.

” We still haven’t received the action,” said a spokesman for the company Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. “We see no basis for a stop manufacturing order [motores a combustão], as we have long issued a clear statement about our ‘line shift’ towards climate neutrality. As a car manufacturer, it’s ours. ambition to become fully electric by the end of the decade, as long as market conditions allow us,” says the spokesman.

A BMW spokesman says: “The BMW Group is fully committed to the Paris climate agreement and already leads the automotive industry in the fight against climate change.”

A Volkswagen spokesman already claims that the company was the first car manufacturer to commit to all the goals defined by the agreement of Paris’s climate “and committed to becoming carbon neutral by no later than 2022”. Volkswagen intends to invest 35 billions of euros (R$800 billions) in electric mobility up to 2022.

Benson and one of his colleagues, Sebastian Bechtel, point out that the lawsuits now underway are contesting only a part of the environmental destruction taking place around the world. Many activists don’t have the financial resources to stand up to the big corporations.

“Many countries don’t want these actions” , says Bechtel. “In the UK, the main problem is costs. In other countries, it is simply not possible to go to court to enforce specific laws.”

Back in Germany, a new NGO called Green Legal Impact seeks to address this issue by offering specialized training to young lawyers and connecting civil society groups to this offer of legal representation.

The managing director of the NGO, Henrike Lindemann, says that, as a young environmental activist, she always observed “that young people had political ideas. then there were the lawyers, often elderly white men, who said that our ideas couldn’t be put into practice because of the laws,” she says. “And I thought, ‘I want to find out for myself if this is true—and if it is, I want to know how to change it.'”

Lindemann states that one of the organization’s goals is to encourage activist groups to act strategically in the lawsuits they file, so that eventually favorable judgments can pave the way for other litigation.

She exemplifies by citing the amount of current actions questioning the 50 km of roads planned for construction in Germany—an issue she argues has not been analyzed in light of climate change.

“I think if the court [decidir contra uma parte da construção], the discussion could change,” she says. “It will no longer be just about that part of the highway, but about the entire pl. longing. And then we’ll need to change the whole discussion about mobility.”

The discussion about access to justice also raises the issue. question of how, in the future, groups in developing countries, which are disproportionately impacted by climate change, may file suits against corporations or governments of richer nations.

Green Legal Impact is already working to help people in other countries who have been harmed by the actions of German companies to seek justice. the headquarters of companies seeking compensation for environmental damage caused by their subsidiaries.

Roda Verheyen says it would be It is difficult to find courts to support actions against foreign governments, “unless, at some point, some hard-hit country decides to take action between states, which has been a topic of discussion in political circles. olytics and academics for a long time, but [ainda] did not materialize”.

Environmentalists are optimistic after this year’s judgments. But with the slowness of the courts, could this be too little and come too late? “Obviously, I don’t think it’s too late or I would suspend what I’m doing,” Verheyen replies. “I think we’re actually seeing a lot of movement.”

Paul Benson agrees. “I think sometimes people tend to think about climate change fatalistically. But everything we’re doing now to reduce it and adapt is very fruitful.”

Regarding what potentially pioneering actions we may see in the future, Verheyen suggests the financial sector “and everything related to the use of land and forests” as areas where she expects to see the emergence of new lawsuits.

“If you look closely at the Shell’s judgment, it demands the suspension of all investment in fossil fuels, period,” she explains. “If I were a financial institution, I would be scrutinizing this decision very carefully.”

But most of all, lawyers working in this field point out that lawsuits are not a silver bullet to end the climate crisis. “They are just one of the levers that can be pulled to encourage the necessary changes,” according to Benson. “The other levers are activism, politics and of course science. But [as ações judiciais] it’s an incredibly powerful tool and I think we’ve managed to confirm that power in 2021.”

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