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2021 Grassroots Climate Victories

For decades, standing up to powerful fossil fuel industries was, mostly, a lost cause. But in recent times, the tide has turned. Today, the reality is that everyday people are making a difference in the fight to cut emissions. Here are some inspiring examples...

Courtroom Rulings: A Dutch court handed down a landmark decision in May to force Royal Dutch Shell, one of the top 10 polluters in the world, to cut emissions by 45 percent before 2030 - saying that Shell had endangered human lives, violating the country’s civil codes.

Another 2021 courtroom victory came for the 16 young plaintiffs in Held v State of Montana, a suit alleging that Montana contributed to the climate crisis and violated their constitutional rights.

“At this political stage where our governments, both federally and in Montana, are determined to continue to rely on fossil fuels, we turn to our courts to protect [our] constitutional rights,” says Grace Gibson-Snyder, 18, and one of the youth plaintiffs.

In February, in an extraordinary, groundbreaking case, France was found to be guilty of ‘non-respect of its engagements’ aimed at fighting global warming. A Paris court convicted the French state of failing to address the climate crisis and not keeping its promises to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Billed the “affair of the century”, the legal case was brought by four French environmental groups after a petition was signed by 2.3 million people. “This is an historic win for climate justice. The decision not only takes into consideration what scientists say and what people want from French public policies, but it should also inspire people all over the world to hold their governments accountable for climate change in their courts,” said Jean-François Julliard, the executive director of Greenpeace France, one of the plaintiffs.

He said the judgment would be used to push the French state to act against the climate emergency. “No more blah blah,” he added.

Also, coming down the legislative track, is the new crime of ecocide that is being proposed for the International Criminal Court. Ecocide now has a legal definition, paving the way for it to become a fifth international crime, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. The draft law, drawn up by legal experts from around the world, defines ecocide as: “Unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

Divestment Pressure: After nearly a decade of battle, students with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard succeeded in pushing the university to divest all of its $42bn endowment – the largest in the world – from fossil fuel-related companies. Other universities like Boston University and Wellesley University divested from fossil fuels this year as well.

“It’s a really clear testament to the power of persistence and of young people organizing,” says Ilana Cohen, a junior at Harvard and organizer with Fossil Free Divest Harvard.

On the other side of the pond, Cambridge University is going one step further and decarbonising its entire portfolio. The 811-year-old British institution divested from conventional energy by the end of 2020, and has pledged to build “significant investments” in renewable energy by 2025, divest from remaining fossil fuels by 2035, and become net-zero across its portfolio by 2038. As at Harvard, the decision at Cambridge comes after almost a decade of student activism demanding more socially responsible investments.

Shareholder Rebellions: Climate activists and dissident investors successfully executed a shareholder rebellion within ExxonMobil and Chevron last spring, protesting the companies’ continued inaction toward meaningfully curbing carbon emissions. The activist hedge fund Engine No 1 staged an upset victory in electing three new directors to Exxon’s board after disgruntled investors hoped to push the oil giant toward a greener future.

Meanwhile, Chevron faced opposition from the Dutch activist campaign group Follow This, which led a shareholder revolt in voting to force the company to implement tougher emissions targets. Mark van Baal, who founded Follow This, said the shareholder rebellions mark a “paradigm shift” for investors and a “victory in the fight against climate change”.

It's also worth remembering a few other key climate victories in 2021. President Biden pulled the plug on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline; Drax axed what would have been the largest gas power plant in Europe; Shell abandoned plans to exploit Cambo oil field in Scotland; China pledged to stop funding overseas coal projects; and Portugal became the latest European country to quit coal.

The scope of the retreat from coal was revealed in a report in September. It found that three-quarters of planned coal power plants had been cancelled since the Paris agreement – not enough, but a good start. OGN looks forward to further positive news in 2022.

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