First oil giant Shell PLC, now Europe’s largest carmaker.
In the wake of a groundbreaking Dutch rule a year ago that ordered Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030, a German organic cattle farmer is aiming to force Volkswagen AG to reduce its polluting vehicle output to zero. That same date.
Ulf Allhoff-Cramer is one of several Germans who, with the help of environmental groups, are suing large corporations for pressuring them to bring their businesses into line with ambitious climate change goals. His case, which will be heard in a court in Detmold, central Germany, on Friday, is a litmus test for a wave of climate change-related cases pending in a German court.
“As the world’s second largest carmaker, VW carries a huge responsibility for the global climate,” the farmer said in a Youtube video produced as part of the campaign. “Something fundamentally needs to change and so send a signal with such a case.”
Greenpeace is financing Alhoff-Kramer’s case and another lawsuit by three plaintiffs in a Brownshowig tribunal. Deutsche Umwelthilfe is sponsoring similar lawsuits against BMW AG, Mercedes-Benz Group AG and oil and gas producer Wintershall DEA.
2030 or 2050?
The lawsuits are based on a 2021 ruling by the German Constitutional Court, which told the government that it was putting future generations at risk by delaying much of the planned greenhouse gas emissions reduction until 2030.
Volkswagen wants to dismiss the lawsuit, the company said in a statement, adding that it has ambitious climate-protection goals and wants to be carbon neutral by 2050. Carbon reduction is a problem for Parliament to decide, not the courts and a German embargo. The combustion-engine car would violate EU rules, the company said.
Rhoda Verhein, a Greenpeace lawyer representing Alhof-Kramer, argues that a section of the German Civil Code protects employers from undue interference by others, which also covers the effects of global warming. To protect its client’s land from climate change-linked droughts and other damage, VW must stop selling polluting cars, he says.
Friday’s hearing could give the farmer an idea of whether his efforts will stick. In German civil cases, judges usually comment on the possibility of a lawsuit at such a hearing.
Alexandros Chatzinarantzis, a litigant at LinkLatters in Frankfurt, said there were many reasons for climate change, and that trying to pin it on a carmaker was unlikely to succeed because legal drivers were the ultimate polluters.
“You cannot set up a linear causal chain for climate change from a specific CO2 emitter, which would be necessary to win the case,” said Chatzinarantzis. He is not involved in the action but is advising the big power companies to tackle the same issues.
‘Not the heart but the brain’
But what counts as a success in the climate case is open to debate, says Ivana Mikesic, a regulatory lawyer in Frankfurt who is not involved in the dispute. In Germany, the chances of judges having a protectionist mentality are fairly good and such cases could lead to a final change in the law.
“The strategy, as their lawyers themselves say, does not target the brain, but the heart of the judges,” he said. “There are possibilities.”
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