When climate change goes to court

June 23, 2021, 2:32 PM UTC

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Are we in the midst of a bumper year for climate change cases?

Last month, in a stunning day for the oil and gas industry, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its emissions faster than it had planned. The ruling wasn’t the first time a court in the Netherlands has ruled in favor of reducing emissions (in the past, Dutch courts have ruled against the government), but it was widely seen as a sign that climate change cases are coming to courtrooms in a big way.

But that wasn’t the only legal challenge this year. In Poland, the government is currently facing a challenge over its emissions targets, while in Australia, a federal court recently ruled in favor of a legal challenge to the government’s approval of a coal plant. In South Africa, a case was brought to court challenging the government on air quality grounds over several plants, while in Belgium, a Brussels court just ruled that the government had breached human rights laws by failing to meet its carbon targets. There are cases related to climate change currently pending everywhere from Canada to Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, and the U.K.

In China, too, legal cases are growing: Bloomberg reports that judges heard 3,500 petitions last year relating to the environment—in 2015, they heard just 45. (There is a catch, of course—the Chinese government closely controls who can bring such cases, and which ones ultimately come to light.)

That reflects a pattern of global momentum behind climate litigation. In February, the UN and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University released a joint report showing that 2020 was a record year for climate litigation.

By that year—a year, mind, in which most of this filing and appealing would have had to have been done virtually—1,550 cases connected to climate change had been brought in 38 different countries; 1,200 in the U.S. alone.

While the report said the majority of the cases were still in wealthy countries—after the U.S., Australia and the EU were the most common places for cases to be filed—the authors expected litigation to rise in the global South, and noted that plaintiffs were becoming more diverse.

They also pointed to three trends in the kinds of cases they were seeing: cases focused on “violations of climate rights” in the context of fundamental human rights to food and shelter, for example; failures of governments to enforce their own climate and emissions goals, and finally, “greenwashing and non-disclosures” by companies. (A subject, no doubt, for a future newsletter.)

But while the most high-profile cases are pushing governments and companies to cut their emissions harder and faster, it’s worth remembering that climate litigation cuts both ways—especially in the U.S.

When I spoke to Michael Gerrard, the founder of the Sabin Center, a few months ago for another story, he said there has been an increase in suits brought “by both sides.”

“Everything Obama tried to do on climate change was challenged in court by Texas, West Virginia and many big industries,” under the Trump Administration, he noted. “And with Biden, the same thing is inevitably going to happen.”

If you want to track cases for yourself, check out the Climate Change Litigation Database—it covers both U.S. and international cases—and is jointly run by the Sabin Center and Arnold & Porter. They also provide monthly updates on their blog on what new cases are appearing.

Meanwhile, this week brought a special Path to Zero package at Fortune, covering sustainability and supply chains. The stories cover everything from GM’s emissions goals to Big Tech grappling with e-waste. You can read the entire report here.

More below.

Katherine Dunn

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that the total number of cases (1,550 globally and 1,200 in the U.S.) were for 2020 alone. Those numbers were cumulative to July 2020, not for 2020 alone.


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