On Tuesday, representatives of oil major Shell once again took on climate activists at The Hague, as the company’s lawyers attempt to convince judges to overturn a 2021 landmark ruling that forced Shell to cut its emissions by 45% by 2030, relative to 2019 levels. 

Seven environmental groups led by the Dutch arm of activist group Friends of the Earth (Milieudefensie) have accused the British oil major of failing to implement The Hague’s 2021 historic ruling, which marked the first time ever that a court has forced a company to align with the goals of the Paris agreement.

Shell, which last month watered down its climate targets (scaling back its objective of cutting the carbon intensity of its scope 3 emissions from energy products by 20% by the end of the decade to 15–20%, while scrapping a target of reducing the intensity of its emissions by 45% by 2035) argued that the court’s 2021 ruling went beyond the “law-making function of the court”.

On Tuesday, Shell’s lawyer, Daan Lunsingh Scheurleer, from British law firm Clifford Chance, told the court that the case “has no legal basis”, and “obstructs the role that Shell can and wants to play in the energy transition”.

The hearing takes place just days after a new report revealed that fossil fuel producers are likely to almost quadruple oil and gas extraction from new projects by the end of the decade, despite the International Energy Agency having warned that there is no room for new oil and gas projects beyond the end of 2021.

The number of instances in which companies and governments have been taken to court on climate grounds has soared in recent years, according to data from the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law. Historically, the majority of cases have been filed within the US.

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Although almost three quarters (70%) of cases have historically been filed against governments, often by NGOs, individuals, or both acting together, the share of cases against governments is declining as claimants are increasingly targeting companies like Shell.

Last year, the share of cases brought against governments declined to just over half of the total (54%), according to a 2023 report from the London School of Economics. 

The court will hear evidence from Shell and Milieudefensie over the next three days, although it could take up to a year until a judgment is reached.