UK High Court squashes climate case against Shell directors
The UK High Court has squashed a lawsuit which aimed to hold Shell directors liable for alleged mismanagement of climate risks.
The case, put forward by ClientEarth, was backed by a coalition of asset owners and stood out as a derivative action lawsuit, whereby shareholders targeted their investee company in court.
The suit alleged that Shell’s directors breached their legal duties under the Companies Act by failing to implement an energy transition strategy that aligns with the 1.5C target set out in the Paris Agreement.
The case was backed among others by UK pension funds Nest and London CIV, Swedish national pension fund AP3, French asset manager Sanso IS, Degroof Petercam Asset Management (DPAM) in Belgium, as well as Danske Bank Asset Management and pension funds Danica Pension and AP Pension in Denmark.
The coalition taking Shell to court argued that it failed to put in place convincing interim targets and that its strategy excluded Scope 3 emissions, despite the fact that they account for more than 90% of Shell’s overall emissions.
But in its ruling, released at the end of last week, Justice Trower dismissed the arguments. He highlighted that it should be up to a company’s directors to decide how their prioritised their duties.
“The formulation of these incidental duties makes plain that they seek to impose specific obligations on the Directors as to how the management of Shell’s business and affairs should be conducted, notwithstanding the well-established principle that it is for directors themselves to determine (acting in good faith) how best to promote the success of a company for the benefit of its members as a whole” Justice Trower said.
The judge pointed out that Client Earth itself only held a small stake in the business and suggested that the case was not driven by promoting the success of Shell.
A spokesperson for Shell welcomed the ruling and accused ClientEarth of putting the case forward with the ulterior motive of advancing its own policy agenda, rather than acting in the best interest of Shell.
“The judge found that ClientEarth’s claim entirely ignores how Directors of a business as large and complex as Shell must balance a range of competing considerations, which the court is not equipped to do” the spokesperson said.
ClientEarth’s senior lawyer Paul Benson expressed disappointment with the decision, the group has the legal right to now request an oral hearing to appeal the High Court Decision and it will decide this week whether it will proceed with the appeal.
Previous court cases
It is not the first time that Shell or other oil giants have been taken to court over their energy transition plans.
In 2021, a Dutch Court ruled that Shell has to cut back its CO2 emissions by 45% by the end of the decade, the decision is being appealed by Shell.
But this is the first time that a law suit directly targets directors. This is in line with a broader trend of asset owners attempting to hold senior executives liable for their climate pledges.
For example, asset owners have campaigned against the reappointment of two directors at Chevron and have put forward a similar case for BP’s AGM. Investors including Nest, London CIV and Brunel are also planning to oppose reappointment of the Shell leadership at the upcoming AGM on 23 May.