Milieudefensie v. Royal Dutch Shell

Litigating Corporations’ Role in the Climate Emergency

In 2019, a group of NGOs and concerned citizens filed a complaint against the fossil fuel company Royal Dutch Shell in the Hague District Court, arguing that the company’s contributions to climate change violate both its duty of care under Dutch law and its international human rights obligations. In 2021, the Hague Court handed down a landmark decision: it found that found that there is indeed an unwritten standard of care with which Shell must comply and that the content of this standard of care is informed by, among other things, the best available science, the widespread international consensus that human rights can protect people from the impacts of dangerous climate change, and companies’ obligation to respect human rights. Though the case is currently on appeal, it has already made waves around the world, demonstrating that corporations can be held liable for their greenhouse gas emissions and be compelled to reduce them through litigation.


Fossil fuel companies play an outsized role in driving the climate crisis – indeed, they provide the very fuel for it. Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) is one such fossil fuel company, and it’s the parent company of the Shell group. The Shell group is involved in exploring, extracting, producing, and trading oil and gas, among other energy products. RDS determines the group’s general corporate policy, including its climate policy, and the RDS Board oversees the policy’s implementation.

Fossil fuel companies supply the products primarily responsible for the worsening climate emergency and, yet, there is a dearth of rights-based climate cases targeting corporations. This case brought by environmental organizations and individuals against Royal Dutch Shell in 2019 is among the first to address this gap.

In short, the plaintiffs alleged in their petition that RDS’ contributions to climate change violate both its duty of care under Dutch law and its international human rights obligations. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued (1) that the massive total volume of carbon dioxide emitted per year as a result of the operations of the Shell group constituted an unlawful act towards plaintiffs; (2) that RDS must reduce these emissions by at least net forty-five percent relative to 2019 levels no later than 2030 (or alternatively by thirty-five percent or twenty-five percent); and (3) that this reduction in carbon dioxide emissions must be achieved in accordance with the global temperature target of the Paris Agreement and with the best available science on climate change.

According to the plaintiffs, these conclusions follow from an unwritten duty of care that RDS has under Dutch law to help prevent, through the corporate policy it determines for the Shell group, dangerous climate change. This unwritten duty must, moreover, be interpreted in accordance with international human rights (the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR] and parallel provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR]) and the soft law that RDS has endorsed on its website and within policy documents, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the UN Global Compact Principles, and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises). RDS’ long knowledge, misleading statements, and inadequate action on climate change also, according to the plaintiffs, supported finding that RDS is responsible for hazardous negligence that endangered Dutch citizens.

RDS responded forcefully to the plaintiffs’ claims, asking the Court to dismiss the case on the basis that: (1) the international treaties and guidelines cited by the plaintiffs were not admissible in court because they governed countries not corporations; (2) the case is not suitable for review by the Court, as the transition from fossil fuels is a political issue that should be resolved by the legislature and politics; (3) the plaintiffs’ claims are too general; and (4) the plaintiffs’ approach was not constructive.

In May 2021, the Hague District Court handed down its landmark ruling. The Court, in short, rejected RDS’ arguments. It found that there is indeed an unwritten standard of care with which RDS must comply and that the content of this standard of care is informed by the relevant facts and circumstances, including the best available science on climate change, the widespread international consensus that human rights can protect people from the impacts of dangerous climate change, and companies’ obligation to respect human rights. After undertaking this analysis, the Court found RDS’ current sustainability policy to be insufficiently concrete and that RDS created risks for individuals that interfered with their human rights. To support this conclusion, the Court pointed to the fact that RDS’ emissions are greater than that of most countries. Thereafter, the Court ordered RDS to reduce its global emissions by forty-five percent compared to 2019 levels, including its own emission sources, emissions of third parties from which it acquires operational capacity, and emissions of third parties who have purchased its crude oil and gas (addressing Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions respectively).

“In light of the broad international consensus that each company must independently work towards achieving net zero emissions by 2050, RDS may be expected to do its part.”

The Court’s decision in Milieudefensie v. Royal Dutch Shell is monumental for human rights and climate change law: while previous lawsuits against countries have succeeded in obligating governments to reduce emissions, this case marks the first time that a Court has found that a private company has an obligation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“Since 2012 there has been broad international consensus about the need for non-state action, because states cannot tackle the climate issue on their own.”

The ruling, moreover, is far-reaching: it applies not only to RDS directly but to their suppliers as well, covering the entirety of emissions related to RDS. As a result, this ruling may have impacts that reverberate across entire fossil fuel supply chains.

45 percent by 2030

The percentage reduction of global emissions compared to 2019 levels that the Court ordered Shell to achieve


The year by which Shell must reduce its emissions by the court-ordered amount

Article 6:162

The provision of the Dutch Civil Code wherein the Court found an unwritten standard of care that must be interpreted through the lens of international human rights and must be followed by Shell

Scope 1-2-3

Shell must take action to reduce its direct emissions [Scope 1], its third party energy use [Scope 2] and all other third party emissions [Scope 3]


Tying countries’ / corporations’ climate and human rights obligations to international climate and environmental law, including, for example, the temperature target established by the Paris Agreement.

Most human rights and climate change laws and treaties provide that countries have obligations, not corporations, making it difficult to bring rights-based climate cases against corporations. Given the lack of written obligations imposed on corporations by these laws and treaties, plaintiffs smartly evoked the Dutch “unwritten standard of care,” which provides that acting inconsistently with what is generally accepted under unwritten law is unlawful. Given this unwritten standard of care, the Court found that, when determining its corporate policy, RDS must observe the due care exercised in society, regardless of whether RDS has committed to this duty of care itself. This, in more concrete terms, meant, according to the Court, that corporations must respect human rights and that the goals of the Paris Agreement represent a universally endorsed and accepted standard that protects the common interest in preventing dangerous climate change.

Bringing the case in a more favorable venue/jurisdiction.

Plaintiffs brought the case in the Netherlands, a forum that has proven friendly to plaintiffs in climate litigation in the past (see Urgenda v. Netherlands; Four farmers and Milieudefensie v. Shell).

Affirming country / corporate responsibility for their ‘fair share’ of emission reductions, regardless of the actions of other countries or corporations.

The defendants in climate change lawsuits, usually governments, frequently argue that they can’t be required to take particular actions to address climate change because climate change is a problem that can only be solved globally – if other countries make insufficient GHG reductions, climate change continue to worsen, even if the defendant country takes more ambitious action to reduce their emissions. RDS mirrored this argument, using its corporate identity to further justify this shallow defense. Indeed, RDS attempted to use the market model to rationalize the passing of responsibility to consumers and to justify its lack of serious climate change action. RDS also argued that, since it’s corporation, it was not structured to consider the societal interests that prompt countries to take climate action.

Courts have countered this argument by requiring countries to do their “fair share” or “part” of emission reductions, meaning that courts are increasingly requiring countries to reduce GHG emissions by an amount that reflects some metric of fairness, regardless of what other countries do.

Similarly, in this case, the Court emphasized that RDS is a major player in the global fossil fuel market and is responsible for substantial carbon dioxide emissions, exceeding that of many countries, including the Netherlands. In light of this, the Court concluded that the actions that RDS takes to address climate change cannot depend on the pace at which global society moves towards the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. It further found that RDS’ obligations to respect human rights by implementing appropriate climate policies exists regardless of whether countries are able and/or willing to fulfill their own human rights obligations.

“The court acknowledges that RDS cannot solve this global problem on its own. However, this does not absolve RDS of its individual partial responsibility to do its part regarding the emissions of the Shell group, which it can control and influence.”

Articulating an obligation to cooperate internationally.

The plaintiffs in this case were careful not to argue that the transition away from fossil fuels should be left to the market or that RDS alone should be held responsible for achieving the GHG emission reductions needed throughout Dutch society. Instead, they agreed with RDS that dangerous climate change is a worldwide problem, which RDS cannot solve on its own. The Court acknowledged the plaintiffs’ position and further included international cooperation in its interpretation of the unwritten standard of care, meaning that RDS is required to cooperate with others to address climate change.

Providing an inclusive definition of the greenhouse gas emissions for which corporations are responsible.

The Court in this case, in examining the GHG emissions that could be attributed to RDS and that RDS must reduce, explained that an emission source counts as falling within RDS’ operations if RDS’ operations cause or contribute to it and its adverse impacts and the extent that RDS can control the source’s adverse impacts. Given the control and wide influence RDS has across the Shell group, the Court ordered RDS to take action to reduce both direct and indirect emissions (Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions), though it provided RDS with more leniency with respect to emissions generated by the third party consumption of Shell’s fossil fuel products.

Using a carbon budget.

The finite nature of the carbon budget was used by the Court in this case to reject RDS’ argument that its climate action may be futile, as any reductions it may make in GHG emissions may be supplanted by its competitors. The Court found, instead, that every reduction of GHG emissions has a positive effect on countering dangerous climate change by leaving more room in the carbon budget.

Emphasizing the urgency of taking climate action now, given the compounding and permanent effects of climate change as time progresses.

The plaintiffs in this case emphasized that unless RDS and other major polluters take urgent action, the world will not meet the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, which will have catastrophic consequences for people and the planet. The Court agreed and emphasized that the Netherlands has an especially strong imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions because temperatures so far have been increasing in the Netherlands twice as fast as the global average, with serious and irreversible consequences and risks for the human rights of Dutch residents.

Using human rights as interpretative guidance when corporations don’t have direct positive human rights obligations.

The case demonstrates that human rights can guide interpretations of requirements with which corporations must comply, even when corporations don’t have direct positive human rights obligations.


The fact that climate change affects a lot of people did not prevent the plaintiffs from bringing their claims to the Court for review. Indeed, the Court considered a class action representing the present and future interests of all Dutch citizens to be permissible. However, it did not permit the inclusion of the rest of the world’s population in the class of people represented in the case.

Private companies, not only governments, have responsibilities they must fulfill when it comes to limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, the temperature target of the Paris Agreement.

“Much may be expected of RDS”

Though corporations may not have written positive human rights or climate change obligations, an unwritten standard of care may be used to enforce the consensus human rights and climate change standards.

Even if an obligation to contribute to climate action has negative effects on a particular corporation and the playing field, the interest served with the obligation outweighs the commercial interest of the company.

The uncertainty inherent in climate change has no bearing on the prediction that climate change due to CO2 emissions will lead to serious and irreversible consequences for residents of specific countries.

Adaptation measures may reduce the risks associated with climate change, but they do not have an effect upon the obligations of countries or corporations to reduce their GHG emissions.

Court interventions may be necessary to catalyze climate action and enforce international and regional targets and standards.


The order issued by the Hague District Court is provisionally enforceable, meaning that it is effective immediately, even if the parties appeal the ruling. RDS can choose precisely how it will implement its obligation to reduce GHG emissions, especially since the company is obligated to produce a “net” reduction. This means that RDS could reach “net” zero emissions by, for example, planting forests to offset its GHG emissions.

In the meantime, RDS is appealing this decision in the Dutch Court of Appeal. The appeal could take up to two to three years. Any appeal in the Netherlands is completely “de novo,” which means that all issues and evidence reviewed at the District Court level can be reviewed again by the Court of Appeal.

For climate activists seeking to enforce international climate law, this ruling suggests that courts may provide an effective avenue to compel corporations to reduce their GHG emissions. Indeed, this case may pave the way for more climate-related litigation that takes aim directly at corporations for acting inconsistently with climate law/legislation.


Carbon budget
A carbon budget refers to the finite quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) that can be emitted before reaching a limit on the increase in average temperature (e.g., 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2 degrees Celsius). A carbon budget can be global, in which case it would provide the finite quantity of carbon dioxide that can be emitted globally before reaching a limit on temperature increases. A carbon budget can also be national, in which case it would provide the finite quantity of carbon dioxide that can be emitted nationally before reaching the limit on the state’s permitted CO2 emissions. Generally, national carbon budgets are derived by reference to a global carbon budget – meaning that a national carbon budget refers to a particular state’s portion of a global carbon budget, based on its population size, historical emissions, and/or some other metric.
Net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
A net reduction refers to the total reduction of greenhouse gases left after the amount of greenhouse gases produced by an entity in its activities has been subtracted out of the amount of greenhouse gases that the entity has reduced in its activities.
Absolute reduction
An absolute reduction refers only to the amount of greenhouse gases that an entity has eliminated in its operations and activities, not accounting for the amount it still produces.
Scope 1, 2, & 3 emissions
“The GHG Protocol Corporate Standard classifies a company’s GHG emissions into three ‘scopes’. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy. Scope 3 emissions are all indirect emissions (not included in scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company.”
UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are “a set of guidelines for States and companies to prevent, address and remedy human rights abuses committed in business operations.”
UN Global Compact
The UN Global Compact is a voluntary initiative, calling on “companies to align their strategies and operations with ten universal principles related to human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption, and take actions that advance societal goals and the implementation of the SDGs.”
OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises
The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are “recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries. They provide non-binding principles and standards for responsible business conduct in a global context consistent with applicable laws and internationally recognized standards.”

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