Victory for climate activists in the Dutch Courts and in Exxon and Chevron boardrooms

May 26 will go down in history as a very bad day for the fossil fuel industry for three reasons: in the Netherlands, the courts issued a  landmark decision that requires Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions – including Scope 3 emissions – by 45% by 2030. Also on May 26, activist shareholders won separate victories at the corporate annual meetings of ExxonMobil and Chevron. Bill McKibben reflects on all three events in “Big Oil’s Bad Bad Day” in The New Yorker , and Jamie Henn wrote  “A Landmark Day in the fight against fossil fuels” in Fossil Free Media.

The case of Royal Dutch Shell is summarized by Friends of the Earth Canada in their press release , which also links to an English-language version of the Court’s decision.  

“On May 26, as a result of legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organisations the court in The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years.

…..“This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters,” says Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

The verdict requires Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. Shell is also responsible for emission from customers and suppliers. There is a threat of human rights violations to the “right to life” and “undisturbed family life”.

German news organization Deutsche Welle offers an excellent, more thorough discussion in “Shell ordered to reduce CO2 emissions in watershed ruling”, which points out that the case was argued on human rights grounds – much like the precedent-setting Urgenda case and the recent German constitutional case. In those cases however, governments were called upon to defend the human right to a future safe from the dangers of climate change. The Shell case is the first time such an argument has been tried against a corporation – and is seen as a harbinger of future legal action. The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) in Amsterdam also provides a succinct summary in  “The Shell climate verdict: a major win for mandatory due diligence and corporate accountability: “Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by net 45% by 2030 (compared with 2019) regardless of the actions or policies of the Dutch government. But the ruling is historic for other reasons as well: the court based its verdict to a large extent on two soft law standards – the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines). In addition, it asserts that companies have an individual responsibility to combat climate change throughout their value chains, and it very clearly links climate change to human rights. This means the judgment is likely to play an important role in the realisation of mandatory due diligence legislation”.

An even more thorough review of the decision comes from the Columbia University Sabin Center Law Blog :  Guest Commentary: An Assessment of The Hague District Court’s Decision In Milieudefensie et al. v. Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .

Shareholder Activism at ExxonMobil and Chevron Oil Majors:    “The Showdown over Exxon’s climate future is here”   appeared in Axios on May 24,  anticipating “ the highest-profile effort by climate activist investors to force any of the oil majors to diversify away from fossil fuels more quickly – targeting the highest-profile company.”  The Washington Post also described the conflict in “The fight for the soul – and the future – of ExxonMobil” on May 22.  As events unfolded at the annual shareholders meeting of ExxonMobil on May 26, the small activist investor group Engine No. 1 won a victory when two of the four Board members it nominated to the Exxon board were confirmed, against the company’s slate. (A third Board member was also subsequently confirmed).  The victory was all the more impactful because Engine No. 1 was supported by the three biggest U.S. pension funds — the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the New York State Common Retirement Fund, as well as the giant BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.   According to “Exxon activist wins board seats in historic climate victory” in The Financial Post (May 26) “The result is an embarrassment for Exxon, unprecedented in the rarefied world of Big Oil, and a sign that institutional investors are increasingly willing to force corporate America to tackle climate change.” The article concludes: “the message from shareholders is clear: The status quo cannot continue.” “After Big Oil’s very bad week, the message for Alberta is clear” by Mitchell Beer appeared in Policy Options (June 2), linking the May 26 events and the International Energy Association report, Net Zero in 2050: A roadmap for the global energy system.

While the Exxon battle grabbed most headlines because of the high-profile participants, a similar story played out at the Chevron Oil annual meeting, where 61% of  shareholders rebelled against the company’s board by voting in favour of an activist proposal from Dutch campaign group Follow This to force the group to cut its carbon emissions. The press release from Follow This is here. The website of  Follow This  is titled: “Green Shareholders Change the World”.  It states that “Follow This compels oil majors to commit to the Paris agreement.” and invites readers to “ Buy a green share and become a co-owner of an oil company. Together we file green resolutions and get a vote in the future of the oil industry.”

Much more will be written about these landmark events. For now, The Guardian offers :  “Climate activist shareholders to target US oil giant Chevron” (May 20)   and “ExxonMobil and Chevron suffer shareholder rebellions over climate”.