The People vs. Shell for Climate Change


Foto Bart Hoogveld

What does it take to tackle climate change – really? Make the biggest polluters, mainly multinationals such as Shell, accountable and get the full support of ordinary citizens for broad societal change. So says Director of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, long-time lobbyist and government advisor on climate change, Donald Pols

In a ground-breaking court case against Shell, Pols and his team, supported by six other Dutch NGOs and 17,000 co-plaintiffs, brought these two approaches together to create a winning formula. On May 26, 2021, the Dutch court ordered the multinational to reduce its worldwide CO2 emissions by 45% from its 2019 levels by 2030.   

The seeds of the decision to pursue this David-and-Goliath case lay in the failure of the 2009 international climate meeting in Copenhagen. Pols, already a climate lobbyist for the 9 years leading up to the conference, remembers everyone in tears at the end after no significant agreement was reached on tackling climate change. “We all shared that sense of failure,” he admits. 

“So, I stopped working on climate change and went to China.” Pols accepted a position as program director at the World Wildlife Fund there and spent the next two years using his position to talk with as many ministers, academics, lobbyists, and negotiators as possible. 

He was looking for an answer to the question of why so little progress had been made since the first global agreement on climate change in 1992. Two key issues stood out. The first related to the role played by multinationals in CO2 emissions. The problem: these big polluters frequently fall outside the legal framework of the nation state, precisely because of their multi-national status. While the 25 biggest polluters are responsible for 50% of global emissions.  

Our campaign against Shell is part of a broader campaign to hold multinationals to account for what they do.

Pols believed there were three ways to tackle this. Campaigning to get multinationals to address the issue voluntarily – which had so far proven ineffective. Creating a multinational regulatory body similar to the World Trade Organization – an ideal solution but will take too long. Or, using the courts to bring the multinationals into a national regulatory framework. This is what they did in the case against Shell. 

The revolutionary aspect of their approach: targeting Shell’s policy rather than its CO2 emissions. “We shifted our focus to the designers of the Shell policy, the board of directors,” explains Pols. For example, Shell had recently decided to close down a large renewable unit, which resulted in an increase of their relative CO2 emissions. It is this issue that Shell is now appealing. 

“I believe they won’t win an appeal,” maintains Pols, “because the evidence-base that helped us to win has only increased.” 

After winning the case, Friends of the Earth Netherlands approached the Dutch government with the request that they take the verdict and make it into government policy. 

This would mean that all large polluters in the Netherlands would be required to have a 1.5°C target as a prerequisite to participate in government projects and receive government funding. “The role of government in climate change is fundamental,” agrees Pols who also insists that the will for change must come from the people. “If we want a change we must push for it, it won’t happen if the majority of citizens don’t demand it.”

Foto Bart Hoogveld

Gaining broad societal support for climate policies is the second of Pols’ two key take-aways. In order to convince ordinary citizens of the fundamental role they must play in climate change, Pols and his team translated climate policy into costs and benefits for the average citizen. 

They found that current policy in the Netherlands typically has lower income people paying more for their energy than their wealthier counterparts. This is because of a degressive approach to taxation on energy. This means that the more energy you use, the less it costs. 

What’s more, they found that the income generated from taxes on energy goes largely towards subsidies for large companies. “Our campaign against Shell is part of a broader campaign to hold multinationals to account for what they do.” Pols believes that these powerful companies need to shift their thinking away from exploitation to societal contribution. 

Pols and his team at Friends of the Earth Netherlands are now mobilizing support for the appeal process, which Shell initiated. They have already received almost 200,000 euros in unsolicited donations and their research tells them that their approach of holding multinationals to account enjoys the support of 90% of the Dutch public. 

One of the most surprising aspects of all this, for Pols, is the fact that he has been approached by one of the Netherlands wealthiest citizens, whom he previously asked for funding, without success. Now, the billionaire admits that his own daughters admonished him for taking so long to support the work of Pols and his team. 

If we want a change we must push for it, it won’t happen if the majority of citizens don’t demand it.

For young people who want to contribute to the battle against climate change, Pols has the following advice – do what you love but focus on the climate aspect of it. So, if you dream of becoming a lawyer, become a climate lawyer. If you work in an office, rally your colleagues to demand that your company defines a clear CO2 reduction target. 

“We don’t have time to chip away, so we’re thinking big,” explains Pols as he describes next steps for tackling another 29 of the large multinational polluters. His focus is on other large companies that, like Shell, have a reach far beyond the Netherlands and emissions exceeding those of the Dutch economy. 

These include some of the biggest agricultural exporters in the world – Friesland Campina and VanDrie Group – along with one of the world’s largest agricultural banks, Rabbo, and pension funds, APB. Dutch national airline, KLM and one of Europe’s busiest airports, Schipol, are also in his sights. 

There is a simple three-step plan, explains Pols. First, a letter informing these selected companies that the verdict from the Shell case is applicable to them too. Second, a follow-up communication to the company’s investors and accountants describing the financial risks associated with a non-viable climate policy as advocated by the Glasgow Net Zero Alliance. If neither of these are successful, they will take them to court, one at a time. 

Souwie Buis

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