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Corporate Accountability for Climate Impact: New Legal Norm

Experts state that scientific advances are bound to make it easier to attribute climate breakdown associated damages to the activities of companies.

Companies could soon be facing a renewed movement of legal action seeking to hold them accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of advances in climate science. 

Over 1,500 legal actions have already been brought against fossil fuel businesses whose emissions over decades have played a significant role in the build up of carbon in the atmosphere.

Just last month, in what was declared a shock ruling, Shell, a multinational oil and gas company was ordered by a court in the Netherlands to lower its emissions by 45% in the next decade. Shell has said it intends to appeal the decision. 

Earlier in the month, a Belgian court ruled that the government’s failure to tackle the climate emergency was deemed an infringement of human rights.

Rupert Stuart-Smith,  a researcher at Oxford University’s sustainable law programme, and lead author of a new study, stated that more such cases were likely to be successful, with new science making it possible to link the damages of climate breakdown more directly to the activities of companies.

“It’s no longer far-fetched to think that these companies can be taken to court successfully,” he was quoted saying. “The strength of evidence is bolstering these claims, and giving a firm evidentiary basis for these court cases.”

“That success could in turn unleash a further new wave of litigation, he said. “It’s possible that we will see precedents made that will make it easier to file future lawsuits on climate impacts.”

This impact is likely to also be felt financially as companies with higher emissions are likely to see less investment. “If more of these cases are successful, then corporate emissions could be seen as liabilities,” he was quoted saying. “There is concern in investor circles about the legal risk. This could have substantial consequences for investors.”

While there have been previous attempts to charge companies to court due to their carbon output, these challenges have run into trouble,, as courts previously rejected links between companies’ activities and specific damage to the climate, or severe weather events.

The paper had cited the case the village of Kivalina brought against ExxonMobil back in 2008. The case was thrown out as judges didn’t find evidence linking ExxonMobil to climate change and specific damages suffered by the village. If only the case had access to more updated scientific techniques, the outcome of the case could have been different, at least that’s what the report’s authors believe. 

Nevertheless, using more innovative science can overcome some of these difficulties. This is according to Stuart-Smith and colleagues, in a paper called filling the evidentiary gap in climate litigation . The paper was recently published in the peer-review journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers examined 73 lawsuits all over the planet, and discovered that many failed to utilise the latest science in their evidence. They concluded that the chances of success of such litigants would have been bettered if they had utilised the latest science, which is increasingly able to show clear correlation between companies’ activities giving rise to carbon emissions, and the damages caused by extreme weather.

“Limitations in scientific evidence in the past played a role in these cases,” stated Stuart-Smith. He asked that lawyers to work more closely with scientists to ensure that the best evidence was being used.

In brief, corporate accountability for climate impact is quickly becoming a legal expectation.

As initially reported by The Guardian

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