How two Goldman prize winners won landmark rulings in Dutch courts

·6 min read

The road to a landmark legal victory compelling the Dutch government to take climate action began a decade ago when the 2022 Goldman prize winner Marjan Minnesma received an official letter saying the government did not want to be a frontrunner in tackling the climate crisis.

At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s worst greenhouse emitters and had a dismal record on renewables that was highly dependent on fossil fuels – a stark contrast with its environmentally friendly image of windmills and bicycles.

The government’s refusal to take action was causing mounting anxiety among Dutch citizens as large swathes of the country’s low-lying coastline are vulnerable to rising sea levels and flood damage – both of which are forecast to get worse if global greenhouse gas emissions are not radically cut.

Time was running out, yet still the government sanctioned new fossil fuel projects and refused to make science-based policies. Enough was enough, decided Minnesma, who founded the climate solutions non-profit Urgenda.

“The only democratic thing to do was to go to court with the facts, without the party politics, without the PR,” said Minnesma, 55, who is among seven winners from six continents recognised this year by the world’s foremost environmental prize.

In 2013, Urgenda filed a lawsuit arguing that the government’s failure to take action violated its constitutional duty of care towardscitizens.

After multiple appeals, in December 2019 the Dutch supreme court issued an extraordinary ruling upholding lower courts’ decisions that obliged the government to cut emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a court anywhere in the world had ordered a government to mitigate global heating by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Like most Goldman prize winners, Minnesma led a David versus Goliath campaign, but the victory stands apart for several reasons.

The legal case was formulated with help from the public through so-called “crowd pleading” – a hybrid of citizen science and crowdfunding. In the end 886 individuals, including a five-year-old boy, joined as co-plaintiffs. But this was not a traditional class action involving a group of victims having to prove they had been harmed; rather a motley crew of ordinary, worried citizens demanding action to prevent harm.

“We went to court on behalf of the greater good – it’s a new type of campaigning,” said Minnesma. The plaintiffs filled the courts, and the hearings were also livestreamed. “It was about the judges having to look into people’s eyes as they decided, knowing that the world was watching.”

In addition, Urgenda worked with hundreds of NGOs and businesses to come up with 54 detailed emission-cutting measures, including lowering speed limits from 80 to 60mph, introducing subsidies to cut livestock numbers, and increasing rooftop solar and home insulation. “Most governments are not very creative, they know how to use the law and something about subsidy schemes … So we gave them the solutions.”

Minnesma, whose résumé includes stints at Shell and Greenpeace, does not see herself as an activist, but rather as a climate entrepreneur at the forefront of innovation.

The 25% reduction is work in progress and Minnesma has threatened to go back to court if the cuts are not scaled up to counteract post-pandemic greenhouse gas rises, but billions of euros have already been allocated to fund many of the mitigation measures submitted by the plaintiffs.

The Dutch ruling sparked a wave of similar lawsuits across the world, leading to recent victories in France, Colombia, Germany, Ireland, Pakistan and Nepal.

According to a tally by the London School of Economics, there are at least 68 climate action lawsuits directed against governments. Minnesma and her colleagues helped to create a climate litigation network to spark new cases and share information so mistakes can be avoided.

“Our case has inspired hundreds of other cases and given people hope that much more is possible. It helped people realise that governments are responsible for protecting us against climate change,” she said. “Industry are the biggest polluters which the government should fix, it’s not up to consumers alone.”

But waiting for governments to do the right thing isn’t an option, insists Minnesma. Citizen action must focus on litigation, street protests and dismantling the financial system

Another Goldman prize winner to set legal precedent and inspire hope is the Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams, 52, who overcame an assortment of dirty tactics by Royal Dutch Shell as the fossil fuel firm tried to avoid accountability for catastrophic oil spills in the Niger delta.

Nigeria is the 13th largest oil producer in the world, with most fields located in the delta region where 30 million mostly impoverished farmers and fishers have for years endured frequent oil spills that contaminate water supplies, crops, mangrove forests and fisheries. Courts in Nigeria have ruled against oil companies but there has been little enforcement of court rulings or regulations, and previous attempts to hold transnational companies to account in their home countries had failed.

Environmental lawyer Chima Williams with Nigerian farmers at the law courts in The Hague in October 2012.
Environmental lawyer Chima Williams with Nigerian farmers at The Hague, October 2012. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images

Williams, with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary on behalf of the victims of two major oil spills, seeking compensation for lost income due to contaminated land and waterways, and improvements to the company’s neglected pipelines.

According to Williams, it turned into a fight against an army of lawyers and a PR machine, with Shell’s tactics reminiscent of a cold war counterinsurgency playbook. Communities were divided and the oil spills blamed on sabotage by criminal gangs.

“Shell used legal gymnastics to delay the process for years. The divide and rule strategy came first, and then stigmatisation and criminalisation of the communities in order to try and avoid being held accountable,” said Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Rights Action.

At one point the case was delayed for three years because Shell claimed it was too dangerous to send its team assessors to the delta, despite operating 50 oilfields in the region.

Finally, in January 2021, The Hague court of appeal ruled that Shell could not hide behind its local operators, but rather that the company has oversight and control over its subsidiary and therefore a duty to prevent oil spills.

It was the first time Shell had been held accountable in a Dutch court, which has still to rule on compensation for the affected communities. Shell recently reported its highest ever quarterly profits, $9.13bn for the first three months of 2022.

The landmark ruling has ramifications for communities across the Niger delta, where Shell controls about half of the region’s oil production, and for those affected in other countries. Williams said: “This has been celebrated as a pan-Niger delta victory, it’s restored people’s hope that justice can be done. If we can get this judgment against Shell in the Netherlands, there’s no hiding place for anybody.”