The latest fronts in climate change-related legal battles
According to a June report from the London School of Economics, the number of lawsuits related to climate change has more than doubled globally in the past seven years, extending beyond traditionally polluting industries such as fossil fuel production.
At the COP27 climate talks in Egypt last week, UN experts warned that many corporate environmental claims amounted to “empty slogans and hype”. This could encourage campaigners to launch more lawsuits against climate action laggards.
Meanwhile, the trial against Big Oil continues steadily, with climate activists winning a remarkable victory on the global stage in 2021 when a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to drastically cut emissions. In the United States, cities and states remain on track in early efforts to bring Exxon, BP and others to court, hoping to get the companies to pay for climate adaptation measures such as seawalls and energy efficiency upgrades. The oil companies say they cannot be held responsible for a global phenomenon like climate change and that policy change should come from governments, not courtrooms.
Below, a look at some of the latest targets of climate litigation.
Companies that make and market plasticswhich are derived from fossil fuels, have defended against a growing number of cases worldwide targeting the waste of the ubiquitous packaging material.
In July, a U.S. federal judge in California granted preliminary approval for a $10 million settlement after U.S. single-use coffee company Keurig was sued by consumers who accused it of inaccurately marketing its K-Cups as recyclable, even though its they are not available in many places. Keurig has denied wrongdoing and liability.
Another lawsuit, filed in 2020 in California state court by the US environmental group Earth Island Institute against Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé and several other global consumer goods companies, seeks to hold those companies accountable for their alleged contributions to plastic pollution. The lawsuit raises public nuisance, breach of warranty and negligence claims.
The companies have denied the allegations in the lawsuits, but have publicly pledged to work to prevent plastic pollution. In January, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other international brands called for a global pact to combat plastic pollution, including by reducing plastic production.
Internationally, climate activists have targeted plastic producers by challenging government building permits for facilities that produce plastic. A lawsuit announced this year by London-based environmental law firm ClientEarth and other nonprofits seeks to murder a $3.1 billion plastic production facility proposed by British petrochemical giant Ineos in Belgium. plastic production. The facility would convert fracked shale gas into ethylene, a key building block for sustainable single-use plastics, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ineos did not respond to a request for comment, but said the facility is the largest petrochemical investment in the area in decades and would create thousands of jobs.
Climate activists have also targeted the food industry, claiming that companies are exaggerating how climate-friendly their products are.
Sweden-based Oatly, which advertises its oat-based milk alternative as the result of a less water-intensive process than that of traditional dairy milk, was hit with three lawsuits in 2021 by investors who claimed the statements came before U.S. federal court in New York amounts to ‘greenwashing’, where a company promotes its activities as more environmentally sustainable than they are. An Oatly spokesperson declined to comment on pending lawsuits.
In Denmark, the European Union’s largest pork producer, Danish Crown, was hit by a lawsuit last year alleging that the company misrepresents its climate footprint through marketing that says its production is “more climate-friendly than you think”. Danish Crown did not respond to a request for comment, but has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.
A lawsuit brought by indigenous groups in France alleges that French supermarket chain Casino has systematically violated human rights and environmental laws by selling beef linked to land grabbing and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The suit alleges the company violates a 2017 vigilance law in France that requires companies to avoid human rights and environmental violations in supply chains. The company has claimed it has strict policies with criteria suppliers must meet, including “zero Amazon deforestation” and no slave-like working conditions.
BANKS AND INVESTMENT COMPANIES
The world’s financial giants face claims from consumers who say they are failing to mitigate environmental damage and misrepresent certain investments as environmentally friendly.
A group of environmental non-profits announced in October that they had launched legal proceedings against BNP Paribas in France, calling the nonprofits the “biggest funder of fossil fuel expansion in Europe”. The group claims the investments in fossil fuels violate France’s duty of vigilance law that requires companies to identify and mitigate environmental damage. The group, led by Oxfam France and Friends of the Earth France, called the move an “unprecedented legal action”. BNP Paribas did not respond to a request for comment.
A German consumer group sued DWS, Deutsche Bank’s asset management unit, in October for misrepresenting a fund’s green credentials in marketing materials. The lawsuit alleges that DWS has told investors it invests 0% in controversial sectors such as coal, but income from the coal industry reported elsewhere accounts for as much as 15% of the fund’s income. DWS has repeatedly denied misleading investors.