The historic ruling by the Dutch court that Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 is being celebrated by climate activists and advocates across the world, as it should be. This was a win that was hard fought over many years by a large number of advocates using various strategies and tactics.
Think Tanks such as Carbon Tracker and Oil Change International, international agencies such as the International Energy Agency and United Nations Environment Programme, and journalists and academics have tracked the world’s fossil fuel reserves, the industry’s plans to extract and analysed the impact this would have on emissions.
This vital information has been an important input into the plans of climate advocates, activists and frontline communities across the globe to target the industry to keep carbon in the ground and force governments to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Each stakeholder has pursued different strategies and tactics; it is this diversity of tactics that contributed to the win against Shell in the lower court.
Fossil fuel divestment activists shone a spotlight on the activities of gas, oil and coal companies because of their relentless pursuit of a business model that assumes all of their reserves will be burned and will not become stranded assets, while destroying the planet. The problem is not about how much each of us individually consume, but rather the decisions made by powerful corporations with deep pockets.
Many NGOs have advocated and lobbied tirelessly for emissions reductions at the national level, as well as science-based targets at the international level. Others have demanded that fossil fuel polluters are banned from the climate talks or a phase out of fossil fuel subsidies.
Grassroots activists and frontline communities have focused on direct action to stop fossil fuel extraction. In Europe Ende Gelände in Germany has successfully shutdown coal mining through mass civil disobedience since 2015, while Code Rood in the Netherlands has targeted coal transport, fracking and most recently was organising a mass action to disrupt Shell’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) in 2020 before COVID-19 put a spanner in the works. The images of 1000 peaceful activists occupying a coal mine that appeared on German national television put the ravaged landscape caused by the German coal giant RWE left, front and centre.
Despite environmental activists in Nigeria having paid with their life, the Ogoni people continue to fight to hold Shell accountable for multiple oil spills. Local communities based on the Bangladeshi side of the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest freshwater mangrove, have been fighting the Rampal Power Plant, a joint project between India and Bangladesh. In North America indigenous communities and their allies have been using a mix of direct action and court cases to delay the Dakota Access Pipeline and are planning a mass civil disobedience in early June led by indigenous people against Line 3, meant to transport tar sands from western Canada to the northern United States.
These tactics and strategies have been successful at communicating the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility of causing the climate crisis. Each tactic has brought a different set of people into the growing movement and has spoken to different audiences who have shifted from being indifferent to active supporters for action on climate, as we have seen with the recent explosion of the youth-led Fridays for Future movement. We can never know fully which strategy pushed the judge in the Shell case over the edge to decide that the common good takes priority over Shell’s profits, but we do know that if this case had gone to court a decade ago, the chances of success would have been much slimmer.
We know that despite this judgement and the growing worldwide movement (Friday for Futures/Climate Strike, anyone?) emissions are still on an upward trajectory because we have not yet successfully shifted power and therefore we need to continue to employ numerous tactics and strategies and most importantly, innovate and experiment. Time is short and the problem is large, but no one group or person has the sole key to success; rather our chances are much better if we rather try to spot synergies between strategies and bring new players into the sphere of climate action. Although I focus much of my time on supporting direct action climate justice activists, I also value the work of politicians who have been pushing for legislation in the halls of parliament. It takes many of us to make the impossible possible.
The Shell verdict has opened up space for the climate movement to aim higher and push harder, but it is not the end of the game. We would be silly not to consider what Shell’s next move will be; it is after all the 5th largest company in the world and we can be sure that Shell will appeal the verdict, as a lower court made the decision. Shell and its competitors will not go down without a fight — they will do everything in their power (the scale is still tipped in their balance) to not have to change their business model and squeeze out oil and gas from every corner of the world. Even if fossil fuel companies start to sound as if they care by making smoke & mirrors commitments, such as ‘’net zero’’; it is our responsibility as a movement to not fall for the carbon neutrality fairy tale.
Rather than falsely rest on our laurels, let’s continue to strategise and innovate to use the momentum of this decision (and the outcomes of the ExxonMobil and Chevron AGMs) to plan our next move on how we continue to challenge the fossil fuel industry and governments. And remember that we don’t want Shell to cut their emissions by an additional 45%: we need to dismantle the fossil fuel industry — i.e.: cut their emissions by a sharp 100%.