The Good, the Bad and yes, the Ugly too

By Sally Campbell. Featured image credit: Greenpeace International

THE GOOD NEWS: The Power of the Consumer and Shareholders by using the Law

History was made in the Hague district court this week. Judge Larisa Alwin ruled that Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. Until Wednesday, courts in the Netherlands, France and Germany had concentrated on holding governments to their commitments under the Paris climate deal of 2015. States were found guilty of denying basic rights to future citizens, which triggered more ambitious climate plans. The landmark Hague ruling shows that corporations can now be ordered to comply with the goals of the Paris agreement.

Governments are supposed to design the regulatory frameworks and put in place the laws and incentives that require companies and households to steadily reduce their carbon emissions. But this relies on private entities playing their part. If they do not, preferring to hide behind slick PR, the law can step in. The judge accepted the argument that Shell had failed in its duty to respect human rights by failing to adequately curb its role in global heating. Shell’s goals to mitigate its climate impact, the court found, “largely amount to rather intangible, undefined and non-binding plans for the long term”.

The Shell verdict is a massive win for campaigners, and other industrial giants will be scrambling to figure out how it could affect them. Because suddenly it is not good enough for firms to comply with the existing law on their emissions – in an extraordinary case like this, they have to comply with global climate policy too.

The judgement was also noticeable in placing responsibility on Shell not just for its own emissions, but for those of its customers. Taken together these amounted to 1.7bn tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – about the same as Russia, the world’s fourth-largest polluter. The company, headquartered in Holland, we hear now, will appeal.

Many jurisdictions contain “duty of care” provisions similar to Dutch law. In a forthcoming paper, Annalisa Savaresi of Stirling University and Joana Setzer of the London School of Economics point out that pursuing corporate actors on the basis of human rights law over climate has become a trend, with a dozen more cases pending worldwide.

Even climate change sceptics must recognise that the world is getting further and further away from hitting targets for carbon emissions. The Hague court was right to ask for a vision beyond “business as usual”. The spectre of a climate emergency is haunting the planet. Ahead of this November’s COP26 (Conference of the Parties) UN climate summit, countries are expected to put forward new, more ambitious promises to cut emissions. Climate models show that to limit global heating to 2C above pre-industrial levels there needs to be a 25% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, compared to where they were in 2010. So far, the pledges fall far short. The Hague court noted that the energy sector requires even steeper falls of around 45%.

There was another win for the climate and environment this week. On the day Shell lost in court, ExxonMobil, the US oil giant, was defeated by activist shareholders on the election of two new members to its 12-strong board, and a large majority of Chevron shareholders voted for a “substantial” reduction in the firm’s emissions from the use of its products. These were stunning achievements up against corporate might.

But, convincing the protagonists is a greater challenge: The fossil fuel lobby is striking back. Two German companies – RWE and Uniper – are suing the Dutch government for compensation over the country’s planned coal phase-out under a 1990s international investor treaty. Martin Dietrich Brauch of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment points out the absurdity of the EU permitting such actions, given that these decades are crucial for a global energy transition to cleaner fuels and the bloc’s net zero targets. What must be faced is that carbon dioxide is building up in the air as more oil, gas and coal is burned. Unless this economic model is replaced, the fight will go on – inside and outside the courtroom.

The proposal by West Cumbria Mining, an Australian investment company, for a deep coalmine in West Cumbria has a great deal of PR spin, first playing down climate issues and focusing on the benefits, jobs, renewable energy if the steel is used to make wind turbines; followed with an environmental statement in 2017 stated that “there will be no significant environmental impacts from the colliery” (Willis, May 2021). This is clearly incorrect. Or at least an imperfect interpretation. The plan passed by Cumbria County Council has been called in by the government for a Public Enquiry. What is clear is that what West Cumbria wants more than anything is jobs, other than short term poorly paid tourism; so the strategy for the future must bring skilled quality jobs to areas left behind by de-industrialisation or decarbonising the economy. A confident local economic development programme with jobs aligned with climate ambitions is now required. Ironically the latest proposed trade deal with Australia may provide the opportunity for the coal mine backer to sue the UK government if it decides to overturn the planning approval.

THE BAD NEWS: Plastics that we, as consumers, throw away

The sight of tonnes of British plastics waste from 7 UK supermarkets being dumped on Turkish beaches for inadequate burning is a stark reminder that the UK urgently needs to ban exports of all plastic waste to help fight pollution. In the last two years, Turkey which has a recycling rate of just 12%, has become the main destination for UK’s plastic. Exports rose from 12,000 tonnes in 2016 to 209,642 tonnes in 2020, about 30% of the UK’s waste exports. Since this exposure Turkey has announced a ban on almost all UK plastic waste imports. It is important that the UK government does not just find another country to exploit and dump our waste onto instead. Per capita the UK is the second biggest producer of plastic waste after the USA. The UK must not only curb exporting its wastes but also invest in a domestic recycling industry. The only drawback is that plastic progressively degrades in recycling so incineration and energy recovery will also be needed.

Greenpeace has called for the UK government to ban all exports of plastics by 2025. Adequate enforcement of compliance will be vital. The Environment Bill gives the UK government an opportunity to reduce single use plastics by 50% by 2025. The government must take responsibility for all the plastic waste and fix the plastic crisis by stopping waste exports to all countries and reducing the amount of plastic that is produced. Despite ministers promising a “Green Brexit” the UK has fallen behind Europe in the battle to tackle the global plastic waste crisis. More than half of the plastic the British government says is being recycled is sent overseas, often to countries without the necessary infrastructure to do so. The UK exported 688,000 tonnes of discarded plastic packaging in 2020, a daily average of 1.8m kilos. Just 486,000 tonnes were recycled in the UK.

Photograph: Caner Ozkan/Greenpeace

Photo shows plastic waste found dumped and burned in the Kuyumcular area of Turkey, which included packaging from UK supermarkets and global food and drinks brands.

For the third time Greenpeace has teamed up with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) to dig deeper into what supermarkets are really doing to cut plastic. The updated league table has shown that the major 10 UK supermarkets used nearly 900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in 2019. See the chart below. There were some positive results; Waitrose is using less plastics and has been investing in reusable packaging and unpackaged products. Aldi has climbed from last place to second after using less plastic and committing to halve the plastics in its stores by 2025, a pledge also made by Sainsbury’s. But there were plenty of negatives. A third fewer single-use carrier bags were given out but there was an increase in “Bags for Life” – 1.58 billion went through the tills in 2019, almost 57 for every UK household. Whatever happened to our own shopping bags? More reuse and refill trials are happening; they need to be rolled out nationwide to have an impact. Clearly supermarkets are not doing enough, so we as consumers could actively support the drive so all stores halve the amount of plastic they use by 2025, and to make 25% of packaging reusable by then, rising to 50% by 2030. As you can see from the chart the Co-op is lagging behind and needs to up its recycling, so we need to apply pressure, locally and to the Regional Managers of the Co-op, after all the Co-op has a near monopoly on Arran and in the Highlands and therefore an influencer of our surroundings.

Greenpeace UK/Plastic League Table

Chart Colours: Green, good; Yellow/Orange, needs improvement; Red, poor

FINALLY, THE UGLY NEWS (A personal view)

The UK government and the attitude of our Secretary of State for International Trade to our farmers in the whole UK is a disgrace. In the haste for an Australian trade deal how can her department possibly support food, especially beef and lamb, with zero trade tariffs that will travel over 13,000 miles from Australia to London when we can produce healthy and quality food in the UK for local UK consumption? Of course, I know the answer, competitive markets and the lowest price! But we already know that cargo boats are heavy polluters of the oceans and atmosphere, and all these cargoes will need to be chilled so more power; and we already know the standards of welfare in both Australia and America are lower compared to the UK. Huge feeding lots, antibiotics, steroids, and enormous users of cattle feed (they are short of grass) with soya in many cases imported from the Amazon area. This at a time when climate considerations are at the forefront of discussions and COP26 is coming to the UK. Most of our farmers are working extremely hard to make a greener agriculture economy, rewilding, to make carbon footprints smaller, and from beast to plate much shorter in food miles; and where we can produce healthily and well in the UK for local UK consumption. To hear the Trade Minister imply, “The consumer can decide if you are worth supporting”. Why are we trying for exchanges with food to the parts of the world the furthest away from the UK when we KNOW climate change tells us local is better for us all! This after having left our closest tariff free market, in the EU. Whilst I would agree that the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) was not by any means perfect, over-subsidising large acreage farms with monocultures, pesticides and fertilisers, but this alternative with agriculture Trade Deals in the Pacific is a bad joke!

Australia to the UK 13,000miles. A large carbon footprint by sea

UK’s financial organisations’ contribution to global emissions. The analysis, carried out by climate solutions firm South Pole, measured the lending and investment activities of the UK’s financial sector, based on a sample of 15 banks and 10 asset managers. They discovered British banks finance 805m tonnes of CO2 production a year. Emissions from projects and companies backed by the City financial houses are nearly double those of the UK. WWF and Greenpeace are calling on the government to introduce new regulations that would bring the sector in line with Paris agreement targets, which aim to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Greenpeace UK’s executive director, John Sauven, said the UK could not turn a blind eye to the City’s contribution to the climate crisis, particularly before this year’s “pivotal” COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, set for November. “Finance is the UK’s dirty little secret,” Sauven said. “Banks and investors are responsible for more emissions than most nations, and the UK government is giving them a free pass. How can we say we are ‘leading the world on climate action’ while allowing financial institutions to plough billions into fossil fuel production every year? The claim is almost laughable.”

The G7 group of the world’s richest advanced nations have recently made fresh pledges to end direct government support for overseas coal projects by the end of the year. It came just days after the International Energy Agency (IEA) said there could be no new investments in oil, gas and coal from this year onwards, if authorities are serious about meeting the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. A spokesperson for the bank lobby group UK Finance said lenders took their “responsibility to wider society very seriously” and were taking a “leading role in the shift to net zero finance”. What does that mean? Finance institutions can support the net zero movement by not only decarbonising their own practices, but taking responsibility for the emissions generated by their partners and beneficiaries. Last month, the UK’s six largest lenders committed to achieving net zero emissions from their portfolios by 2050 or sooner, as part of the UN’s new Net Zero Banking Alliance. “The industry will continue work with others to help mobilise capital in a way that takes account of local community and environmental needs,” said a UK Finance spokesman. Again, we need to hold them to their pledges!

More UGLY NEWS! Offsets and Greenwashing are the flavour of 2021

First the Cambridge Dictionary definitions: Offsetting for environment: to pay for things that will reduce carbon dioxide in order to reduce the damage caused by carbon dioxide that a company produces.
Greenwashing is behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is!

Shell is keen on offsets, whilst Nestle’s goal of offsetting 13m tonnes of CO2 a year with “nature-based solutions” would require 4.4m hectares of land a year, about the size of Denmark. Still, KitKats will be carbon neutral by 2025, the company says; what Greenwash! And then there are the aviation companies, with rash, and outrageous promises. But perhaps the worse transport offender is the shipping industry, where the International Maritime Organisation, in November 2020, sealed a deal that allows emissions to increase until 2030.

Marks and Spencer has come in for criticism too for placing 1,000 beehives on 25 farms as part of its Farming with Nature Programme. This has been met by dismay by some bee experts and conservationists: “This is Greenwashing, or Beewashing at its most blatant” responded Gill Perkins, the Chief Executive of the Bumblebee Trust. Releasing millions of honeybees, which are just one of 270 bee species in the UK, many of which are in sharp decline, when there are not enough wild flowers to support all these. “We need to create better countryside instead of farming bees, which will put pressure on the wild pollinators”.

Files published by environmental lawyers ClientEarth describes the greenwash action by some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies as greenwash and ‘a great deception’ (Carrington 2021)

There is some climate action and hope…renewable energy and electric car purchases are accelerating rapidly BUT until every government and corporate decision passes the credibility test…does it really cut carbon NOW? If not we are kidding ourselves if we think we are treating the climate crisis as the emergency it is.

Finally, where are WE in all this?

Overconsumption is at the root of the planet’s environmental crisis. One solution, put forward by JB MacKinnon (2021) is that we should simply buy less. He is on a mission to persuade us to buy a lot less “stuff”. On the hypothetical day the world stops shopping, carbon emissions plummet, and there is also chaos with the consequences. However, he suggests a more gradual change. He sees this as a difficult fix to a big problem. Consumption – of fast fashion, flights, discounted gadgets, new cars – has become the driver of the ecological crisis. But the government has issued a rallying call to boost the economy by opening our wallets, and offering our credit cards! Shopping has been cast as a positive act, retail therapy a civic duty. But it is not only shopping but reducing the quantity of electricity used, less travel and less eating out. Repair rather than replace. Buy just enough food so no waste. He suggests a rule of thumb for how much impact you are having as a consumer, the best one is how much money are you spending? If you are spending more your impact is more, if less spending your impact is less.

So, the question to ourselves: Are we prepared to give up our vibrant, high-velocity, acquisitive lives in order to calm our minds and save the earth? A subject of debate in the coming times.

Sally Campbell
May 2021

Carrington, Damian (2021) Far-off Climate targets mean little, unless we cut carbon now. The Guardian 7 May
MacKinnon, JB (2021) The Day the World Stops Shopping. Bodley Head
Savaresi, Annalisa and Setzer, Joana, Mapping the Whole of the Moon: An Analysis of the Role of Human Rights in Climate Litigation (February 18, 2021). Available at SSRN: or
Willis, Rebecca (2021) The Cumbrian coalmine fiasco. Supporters of a new coalmine near Whitehaven have argued that it will reduce global warming and create green jobs. How could such absurd claims have gained any credibility? The Guardian 21 May