A Peruvian farmer and mountain guide, Saul Luciano Lliuya, is suing the German energy company RWE for environmental damages.
He claims RWE is responsible for melting ice and snow in his hometown of Huaraz, located near a swollen glacier, and it’s now at risk of overflowing.
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The glacier broke free of its embankment once before in 1941, causing a flood which killed 5,000 people. A second flood would be expected to follow the same path.
There has been a steady increase in the number of climate-change related cases in recent years, the majority of which target governments accused of doing too little to reduce carbon emissions and avert climate change.
The 2015 Paris Agreement sparked renewed awareness of global environmental issues and paved the way for considerations about the culpability of governments and large companies in rising carbon emissions.
Being able to hold big companies and governments accountable for the effects of climate change marks a shift in public perception of what can be done in the fight climate change.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian government and groups Nature and Youth and Greenpeace Nordic clashed in court this week.
Norway is being challenged over its decision to grant new oil drilling licenses in the Arctic ocean.
The green groups argue that the move violates the Paris agreement and Norway’s constitution which says “natural resources shall be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term considerations which will safeguard this right for future generations”.
The country’s basic charter was changed in 2014 turning preserving a “healthy, productive and diverse environment” from a suggestion into an obligation.
In a telephone conversation with BBC Mundo, Lliuya said:
The mountains are melting, the lagoons are overflowing and companies like RWE have contributed to that happening.
Lliuya has already spent some $7,000 on protective measures for his town and is requesting RWE reimburse him for this and pay a further $20,000 to help fund flood defences.
Though there is currently no law prohibiting greenhouse gas emissions Lliuya’s lawyer, Roda Verheyen, is arguing that such actions create unbearable living situations.
RWE has referred to the demands made by Lliuya as “unjustified” and “unacceptable”, claiming it cannot be held solely responsible for effects of global warming.
However, Romany Webb, a fellow at the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law, said:
I think there is already growing recognition among the public that fossil fuel and other companies emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases have a responsibility to address climate change. A victory for the plaintiff in this case would reinforce and strengthen this.
RWE was found to be responsible for around 0.5 percent of all global emission since the beginning of industrialisation, according to a 2013 climate study.
In comparison, the European Union accounts for 9.5 percent of global emissions the number is actually rather significant.
Though initially rejected by a lower court in Essen where RWE is based, the case has been taken up by a higher regional court in Hamm — marking the first time a German court has acknowledged a link between carbon emissions and global warming.
Following the hearing Verheyen said:
For the first time, a court has said that an emitter, as a contributor to climate change, must claim responsibility for the hazards associated with global warming.
While these lawsuits have been compared to those taken against tobacco or asbestos companies it is harder to establish a direct link between a company and the effect on the environment.
RWE is responsible for only a fraction of global greenhouse gas emission. Major greenhouse gases are well mixed in the atmosphere and due to this it is not possible to attribute particular damage to RWE’s emissions. That is, we cannot say with certainty that RWE’s emissions caused the glacial melt that now threatens Saul’s home, as the melting could be the result of emissions from another source.
According to a University of Oslo report the rates of warming in the Arctic are double the average increase on the rest of the planet. Oil and gas exploitation has been found to exacerbate the melting of ice and the rise of surface temperatures.
Report authors Beate Sjåfjell and Anita Margrethe Halvorssen said:
The majority of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground if we are to have any chance of staying below the two-degree limit. Logical and obvious consequences are that we must refrain from exploiting fossil fuels.
Head of Greenpeace Norway, Truls Gulowsen, told Verdict:
What the world needs is to reduce oil dependency and scale back. The current international commitment is grossly insufficient compared with the long term goals set in the Paris Agreement. There is no space for additional fossil fuels to be added to our current global carbon budget.
The ability to link effects of global warming to specific companies is getting easier with the development of attribution science.
A paper published this September in the journal Climatic Change demonstrates the use of so-called probabilistic event attribution in assessing the causes of extreme weather events and tracing emissions to specific companies.