The environmental and climate litigation movement is gaining momentum worldwide, as people increasingly see the courts as a way to hold to account polluting corporations and governments. Friends of the Earth International is uniquely placed to undertake litigation work because of our connection to grassroots communities, movements and local struggles. Lawsuits have the potential to deliver important precedents that can spearhead emissions reductions and environmental justice outcomes, whilst challenging corporate impunity.
2015 saw a landmark victory against a national government, when a court ordered the Dutch state to increase its emissions reduction ambitions in the Urgenda Climate Case. In the same year, Peruvian farmer Saúl Lliuya filed a lawsuit against energy company RWE in Germany. This was the first time a company was taken to court for their part in causing climate change.
In 2021, Friends of the Earth Netherlands and co-plaintiffs made history by winning the People VS Shell climate case. Dutch judges ordered one of the world’s biggest polluters to reduce its emissions by 45% within 10 years. Globally, the cumulative number of climate cases has more than doubled since 2015. The total now stands at over 2,000. One quarter of these were filed between 2020 and 2022.
How is Friends of the Earth International involved in litigation?
Our member groups are leading a range of lawsuits, from high-profile cases against governments and corporations in the Global North, to local cases focussed on development issues, human rights, and impact assessments in the Global South. Together, these cases are changing the status quo across the globe, in favour of climate justice!
Here is a snapshot:
The People VS Shell
The people took Shell, one of the biggest polluters in the world, to court for causing climate change and WON! As a result of legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organisations, in May 2021 a Dutch court ruled that oil and gas corporation Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years. Instead of accepting and acting on the Court’s verdict, Shell is wasting time with an appeal. The outcome is expected in late 2023 or early 2024.
Pari islanders VS Holcim
Friends of the Earth Indonesia (WALHI), Swiss development aid (HEKS) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), are supporting four Indonesian fisherfolk to bring a climate litigation case against Swiss cement company Holcim. As rising sea levels threaten to submerge their home, Pulau Pari, by 2050, the plaintiffs are calling on Holcim to reduce emissions, pay for damages, and finance flood protection measures. The case was filed in January 2023.
Total in court under French duty of vigilance law
Friends of the Earth France, Survie, Friends of the Earth Uganda and three other Ugandan groups brought a case against TotalEnergies for human rights and environmental violations from its oil megaprojects in Uganda and Tanzania (Tilenga and EACOP). This is the first case brought under France’s duty of vigilance law, which was adopted in 2017 thanks to years of civil society campaigning against corporate impunity. In 2023, the judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds, but the struggle for justice continues.
Russian citizens VS the state
Activists from organisations including Friends of the Earth Russia, Fridays For Future and Ecodefense filed the first-ever climate case in Russia in September 2022. The plaintiffs are arguing that by not taking sufficient measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Russian authorities are violating the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
2021 saw two landmark legal victories against Shell, obligating the oil giant to compensate Nigerian farmers for harm caused by oil spills, and to reduce their emissions by almost half within 10 years.
In March 2022, Friends of the Earth South Africa (GroundWork) and other groups won their ‘Deadly Air’ case. The High Court recognised that poor air quality in Mpumalanga Highveld was a breach of the Constitutional right to a healthy environment. The judgement directed the Government to prepare and implement regulations to reduce air pollution within one year.
In July 2022, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland won their legal challenge to the UK Government’s ‘Net Zero Strategy’. The High Court ruled that the strategy was unlawful as it did not comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, legislation that Friends of the Earth was central to securing and which was the first of its kind globally.