Potential funding of climate-change class action part of global litigation trend targeting emitters

Vancouver city council recently voted to include funding for future class action in draft budget

Potential funding of climate-change class action part of global litigation trend targeting emitters
Andrew Gage, West Coast Environmental Law

Following an international litigation trend where governments and individuals are suing major fossil fuel companies for damages resulting from climate change, the City of Vancouver has voted to allocate funds toward a future class action lawsuit.

The initiative is part of the Sue Big Oil campaign, which is encouraging British Columbia’s local governments to set aside at least $1-per-resident towards a legal fund and join together in a class action to recover the money required for necessary climate-change-related public expenditures. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimate municipalities will need to spend $5.3 billion annually on climate change adaptations, to contend with things like flooding, drought, permafrost thaw, rising sea levels, intense rainfall, ice and windstorms, and heat waves. Vancouver predicts an anticipated one-metre sea-level rise will cost the city $1 billion.

“Taxpayers cannot afford the cost of climate change that we really haven't begun to figure out how we're going to pay for,” says Andrew Gage, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law. “It must be shared with the industry that spent decades delaying action on climate change, which knew that their products were causing these types of impacts and continued to profit to the tune of many hundreds of billions – trillions of dollars.”

West Coast Environmental Law has advocated for years for local governments to consider this type of class action lawsuit, says Gage. In the U.S., local governments have brought around 20 of these cases, which are ongoing, and states have brought three, he says.

The Sue Big Oil campaign hopes to replicate the success of the lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell. A court in the Netherlands ordered the oil company to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, compared to its 2019 levels. Seven groups, including Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Greenpeace, launched the lawsuit in 2019 on behalf of 17,000 Dutch citizens they argued are threatened by the Shell’s continued investment in fossil fuels.

“That's a case that I think is the furthest along in terms of demonstrating that the courts will hold fossil fuel companies accountable for being responsible for the harm caused by their products, even though it wasn't a damages claim, per se,” says Gage.

In January, Friends of the Earth Netherlands sent letters to 30 multi-national corporations operating in the Netherlands warning that if they did not cut their carbon emissions, they would face similar legal action.

Another court action is underway in Germany involving a Peruvian farmer who claims that German utility company RWE is partly responsible for the climate-change-caused glacial retreat, which has created a flood risk in his Andean community. Saúl Luciano Lliuya argues RWE should pay .47% of the associated adaptation costs, based on a study which tracked 259 years of carbon and methane emissions and calculated the percentage of global emissions for which the world’s largest polluters are responsible.

The same study, by Richard Heede, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, is also being cited in a Swiss lawsuit against the cement company, Holcim. Four residents of the Indonesian island of Pulau Pari filed the civil suit July 12. They want the company to pay for flood defences as they experience sea rise, as well as a commitment for carbon emission reduction.

“In both the German and the Swiss case, they are claiming for actually very small percentages based on the actual contributions of those companies that they’re suing to the climate crisis,” says Gage. “That's a similar approach that we would expect would be taken here as well. You can't sue Chevron for 100% of Vancouver's climate costs. You can sue Chevron for 3.2%, because that's what they put into the global atmosphere.”

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