The environmental group that won a landmark court case last year against Shell has warned 30 multinationals to slash their emissions or risk legal action, as pressure mounts on the private sector to comply with global climate goals.
Milieudefensie, the Dutch wing of Friends of the Earth, has written to companies including BP, ExxonMobil, ABN Amro, ING, Unilever, Vitol and KLM, all of which have entities incorporated in the Netherlands and large international footprints.
“You are receiving this letter because you lead an enterprise with control over and influence on a substantial amount of CO2 emissions,” director Donald Pols wrote to chief executives on Thursday. “Action is a mandatory obligation. And system players, such as your enterprise, bear a special responsibility.”
The warning signals that the corporate world faces a new front in the battle against climate change as the group uses its Dutch court victory, which imposed a mandate on Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, as a precedent to force action at other companies.
Roger Cox, the Dutch lawyer who represented Milieudefensie against Shell, told the Financial Times in December that he expected an “avalanche” of copycat cases against oil companies, banks, insurers, car manufacturers and other industries.
At the 2015 climate summit in Paris, 195 countries agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit any temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, but governments have since done little to compel industries or individuals to change, and global emissions have continued to rise.
Peer de Rijk, policy officer at Milieudefensie, said the ruling against Shell last May had shown that companies were required to act regardless of current legislation or consumer behaviour.
“The [Shell] verdict gives us so many possibilities and it is so clear-cut what the court says about responsibility of the companies,” he said. Shell is appealing against the ruling.
Milieudefensie has called on the chief executives to publish by April 15 a plan to cut all carbon emissions, including those produced by their customers, by 45 per cent by 2030.
The group said it was willing to work with the companies to develop policies that complied with the Paris climate accord and acknowledged that some of the organisations may already have climate plans in place. But it emphasised that lawsuits would follow against those that did not comply.
“If they do not move [far] enough, quick enough, we will of course consider going to court,” de Rijk said.
Dutch lender ING said it had received the letter and that it shared Milieudefensie’s “concerns about climate change”. The bank said it aimed to reduce its funding to upstream oil and gas by 12 per cent by 2025 and was a member of the UN-backed Net-Zero Banking Alliance, which is committed to aligning global lending and investment activity with the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Vitol, the world’s biggest independent oil trader, said it had received the letter and was ready to engage with Milieudefensie. The company, which is registered in the Netherlands, has made no commitment to reduce emissions to date.
Exxon said it aimed to cut emissions from its own operations by 20-30 per cent by 2030. BP declined to comment.
Unilever, the British consumer goods group previously headquartered in the Netherlands, said it aimed to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its entire value chain by 2039 and to halve the value chain emissions of its products “on a per consumer basis” by 2030.
ABN Amro and KLM could not immediately be reached for comment.
Additional reporting by Owen Walker, Neil Hume and Judith Evans in London
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.
Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here