Shell and “greenwashing”

In May 2021, The Hague District Court delivered a judgment in the case against Shell, ordering it to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 (compared to 2019 levels). This is a groundbreaking judgment as the Court ordered a private sector entity to comply with the goals set out in an international treaty.


The case is a result of a class action lawsuit. 17,379 citizens represented by Milieudefensie sued RDS (Royal Shell Dutch) – a so-called TopCo (top holding company) of the Shell group – demanding that the court order RDS to reduce greenhouse gas emissions according to the Paris Agreement objectives.


The RDS defines policies and action points for approximately 1,100 subsidiaries. The thing is that the company has adopted an approach that could be described as greenwashing. The 2018 RDS report indicates that their goal is to reduce emissions by 20% by 2035 and by 50% in 2050. On the official Shell website, it was stated that achieving the climate targets depends on the progress of society in meeting the Paris Agreement objectives


Said Treaty became famous thanks to Donald Trump, who served notice to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in November 2020, while Joe Biden, in the first days of his presidency, immediately reinstated it. On the basis of the Treaty, the signatories agreed that it is crucial to limit global warming to maximum 2°C in 2050 compared with 1990. The treaty also calls for climate neutrality by 2050, i.e. a situation in which the amount of CO2 emitted is less than or equal to the amount absorbed.


In the Netherlands, there is a Climate Pact among companies, organizations and public administration, which stipulates a 49% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands by 2030 compared to 1990 (Shell Netherlands has also been a party to the Pact since 2019). Moreover, the Dutch Climate Act aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.


The court found that the RDS has an obligation resulting from Book 6 Section 162 Dutch Civil Code, which stipulates the unlawfulness of an action which is contrary to what is commonly acceptable. The commonly accepted goals include, i.a., climate targets set by the UN. Moreover, the court found that Shell has a special obligation to residents of the Wadden region. Their right to life, privacy and family is particularly endangered and disrespected as a result of climate change, brought upon by RDS activities. The court in The Hague, having analyzed the RDS plans for the entire group, concluded that they were intangible, undefined and non-binding for the long-term GHG cuts.


I am impressed by the maturity of the Dutch society and judiciary. The judgment in this case is the result of the characteristics of the Dutch law, their climatic conditions (in particular, the threat of rising ocean levels) and actions taken by Shell. Moreover, the judgment will be analyzed by the court of second instance in connection with an appeal announced by Shell. It is only a matter of time before such decisions are made in other countries. I am glad that citizens do not sit idly by and wait for political action to be taken. Politicians are often “supported” by large corporations wouldn’t want to bite the hand that feeds or lobby for strict climate regulations. Citizens who prove that their right to life and health may be jeopardized should be able to rely on the protection granted to them by an independent court adjudicating on a civil case. The time of greenwashing is slowly running out and we all need to turn empty promises into concrete actions.






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