Corporate Legal Accountability Annual Briefing

Latest briefing: June 2018

Turning up the heat: Corporate legal accountability for climate change

Full briefing

This year’s Corporate Legal Accountability Annual Briefing highlights the rising trend of climate litigation brought against companies. Climate change is one of the biggest human rights issues of the 21st century. It not only threatens our ability to achieve sustainable development but it also infringes upon a vast array of internationally recognised human rights. With over 70% of total CO2 emissions linked to just 100 major fossil fuel companies, strategic litigation on climate change against companies is a beacon of hope for the climate and broader corporate accountability movement.

The briefing examines the opportunities and challenges for bringing such litigation, and provides an in-depth analysis of the ongoing 14 climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies around the world. It also analyses other non-judicial initiatives to hold corporations accountable for climate change, such as shareholder activism and the “Carbon Majors” Inquiry by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines. Finally, it highlights the context in which these efforts arise, one of aggressive reaction by the industry and restrictions on climate activism and other civic freedoms.

Key findings of the report include:

(1) Scientific research and investigative journalism have bolstered legal claims

Research attributing shares of global emissions to specific companies has facilitated legal cases seeking to hold private companies liable for their role in climate change. So too has evidence that companies were aware of their contribution to climate change, and its impacts, and worked to deceive or misinform the public and investors.

(2) Climate litigation is used as a tool for the broader climate justice movement

Lawsuits mostly look to recover the costs for climate adaptation and resilience, but they are also used as a strategic tool to hold emitters accountable and to prompt more responsible climate policies by companies. Litigation is complementary to non-judicial approaches, which are important levers for change.

(3) Human rights and environmental lawyers can learn from each other

The use of both human rights and environmental law in establishing legal arguments reinforces the value of strong collaboration between advocates from both spheres in holding companies legally accountable for their human rights impacts and provides a strong foundation for impactful climate litigation going forward.

(4) Novel approaches and collaborations for climate justice are emerging

New strategies include shareholder activism, litigation, and legislative efforts, as well as attempts to establish fiduciary obligations of company officials and/or third-party liability of insurers.

(5) Carbon majors are on the offensive while climate activism is increasingly restricted

Plaintiffs are likely to face long and costly proceedings, and can expect combative responses by defendant companies, including through aggressive public campaigns. Restrictions on civic freedoms, in particular Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), also threaten environmental advocates.

For more information, see our recent interview on a possible climate lawsuit against Shell in the Netherlands and our Climate Justice portal.

Executive summary also available in Chinese, French, Spanish, German & Russian.

Previous briefings:

April 2017

February 2016

January 2015

November 2013

June 2012