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Banks, Finance the Next Targets as Dutch Climate Litigator Predicts ‘Avalanche’ of Lawsuits

One of the world’s most successful climate litigators is predicting an “avalanche” of climate cases as activists increasingly assert that not only governments, but private actors like fossil companies and banks, are legally bound to help prevent runaway climate change by cutting their emissions.

“Seven months after his landmark victory against Royal Dutch Shell, Roger Cox has never been busier,” writes the Financial Times.

Not resting on laurels earned last May, when he persuaded a judge in The Hague to order the (soon to be formerly) Anglo-Dutch oil mammoth to cut emissions by 45% by 2030, the 53-year-old Dutch native is preparing for Shell’s appeal, petitioning Belgium to comply with another of his court victories, and consulting on a good half-dozen climate cases elsewhere around the globe.

Cox told the Financial Times he now expects climate activists, and their lawyers, to launch an “avalanche” of litigation, both against other oil majors and associated interests like the automobile sector. 

The storming of the auto sector has already begun, the notes. In November 2021, Greenpeace sued Volkswagen to end the production of combustion-engine cars and cut total emissions by 2030. The move was similar to that of German activists who filed lawsuits against BMW and Daimler in September.

Banks and financial regulators like the European Central Bank should also be anticipating legal action to end their support for the fossil sector, Cox said. Noting that he and his team are now investigating the matter of director liability, he said, “financing these large CO2 emissions is not something that can be accepted anymore.”

“One of the big reasons for the judiciary to exist is to bring balance in society and to protect us from human rights violations from our governments and other large entities that dictate our world and our well-being,” he said.

And failing to act on the climate crisis is a human rights violation bar none, Cox observed. “The consequences for life and for well-being, and for your right to water and food, will all be violated for eternity if we do not address this. We’re talking about the most widespread human rights violations ever.”

“Obviously, courts do feel a very strong urge to intervene once they understand what the problem is, how urgent the problem, is and what is at stake,” he added.

As he did in his first climate victory—a landmark case in which the Dutch government was ordered by its own courts to cut CO2 emissions by 25% before 2021—Cox continues to assert a fundamental argument that all signatories to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (almost universal now at 197) are legally obliged to keep greenhouse gas levels low enough to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Still at stake, he told the Times, is “how does this universally defined danger line transfer to national law and what does it mean for duty of care,” that is, the legal obligation to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while engaged in actions that could foreseeably cause harm to others.

“At the 2015 COP 21 climate summit in Paris, that ‘danger line’ became more concrete, with 195 nations agreeing to try and limit any temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” the Times adds. As that danger line comes ever closer, and so many governments remain so reluctant to act, courts are being increasingly viewed as the planet’s last hope.

Estimating that there are some 30 climate cases similar to his 2015 suit against the Dutch government now under way around the world, “we have to keep the pressure on, as much as we can, to make sure that everyone understands that there is a legal duty to act,” Cox said.