Activists are increasingly taking legal action in the fight against climate change.
Climate change litigation has more than doubled globally in the past seven years, according to a report by the London School of Economics.
Greenwashing - in which a company touts its operations as more environmentally sustainable than they are -took the spotlight in 2022. In October, Australia's corporate watchdog fined Tlou Energy formaking “factually incorrect” statements about its environmental credentials. At COP27 in November, UN experts calling out the “empty slogans and hype” of many corporate environmental claims.
Loss and damage also gained traction at COP27, with developing countries most affected by climate change demanding compensation from richer countries, which are disproportionately responsible for high emissions.
This has emboldened campaigners to launch more legal cases against climate-action laggards.
In 2021, a landmark case against Shell saw the Big Oil giant ordered to slash CO2 emissions by 45 per cent. This paved the way for further litigation, like the ongoing efforts in the US to bring Shell, BP and Exxon to trial over their climate tactics and greenwashing.
It is hoped the oil companies could be forced to help pay for climate adaptation measures like sea walls and energy efficiency upgrades. But they argue they can’t be held responsible for a global phenomenon such as climate change and that policy change should come from governments not courtrooms.
Climate activists are leveraging legal actions on all fronts, aiming to hold both governments and corporations to account - and traditionally polluting industries such as fossil fuel production are no longer the only target.
Here ate some of climate litigation's latest targets.
Climate change law suits against plastic producers
Companies that make and market plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels, have been defending against a growing set of cases worldwide focused on the waste from the ubiquitous packaging material.
In July, a US federal judge in California granted preliminary approval for a $10 million (€9.5m) settlement after single-serve coffee company Keurig was sued by consumers who accused it of inaccurately marketing its K-Cups as recyclable even though they are not in many localities. Keurig has denied wrongdoing and liability.
Another suit was filed in California state court in 2020 by the US environmental group Earth Island Institute against Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestlé and several other global consumer goods companies. It seeks to hold those companies accountable for their alleged contributions to plastic pollution. The suit raises public nuisance, breach of warranty and negligence claims.
The companies have denied the allegations in the lawsuits but have made public promises to work to avoid plastic pollution. In January, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other international brands called for a global pact to combat plastic pollution, including by cutting plastic production.
Internationally, climate activists have targeted plastics makers by challenging government building permits for facilities that produce plastics.
A lawsuit announced this year by London-based environmental law firm ClientEarth and other nonprofits is trying to kill a £2.6 billion (€2.9b) ethylene facility proposed by British petrochemical giant Ineos in Belgium. Litigators claim approvals by the Flemish government failed to take into account the environmental impact of the plant.
The facility would convert fracked shale gas into the chemical, a key building block for durable and single-use plastics, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. An Ineos spokesperson says the plant will make "one of chemistry’s main building blocks that goes into a broad range of products essential in everyday life."
Climate change lawsuits against the food industry
Climate activists also have targeted the food industry, claiming companies overstate 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. In US federal court in New York, investors claimed the statements amounted to “greenwashing”.An Oatly spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.
In early 2022, Oatly ads were banned by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the misleading claims.
In Denmark, the European Union’s biggest pork producer, Danish Crown, was hit with a lawsuit in 2021. It was alleged that the company misrepresents its climate footprint through marketing that says its production is "more climate friendly than you think". Danish Crown didn't respond to a request for comment but has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent in 2030.
A lawsuit filed by Indigenous groups in France claims 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 claims the company is violating a 2017 'duty of vigilance' law in France that demands companies avoid human rights and environmental violations in supply chains. The company has claimed it has a rigorous policy establishing criteria for suppliers to comply with including 'zero Amazon deforestation' and no slave-like working conditions.
Climate law suits against banks and investment firms
A group of environmental nonprofits in October announced they have initiated a legal process in France against BNP Paribas, which the nonprofits called the "largest financier of fossil fuel expansion in Europe." The group claims the fossil fuel investments violate the French duty of vigilance law requiring corporations to identify and reduce environmental harms.
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 in October sued Deutsche Bank's asset management unit DWS, alleging it misrepresented a fund's green credentials in marketing materials.
The lawsuit claims DWS told investors that it invests 0 per cent in controversial sectors such as coal, but elsewhere indicated income from the coal industry accounts for as much as 15 per cent of the fund's revenue. DWS has repeatedly denied misleading investors.