Landmark report finds legal grounds to hold fossil fuel firms liable for environmental damage
The findings of a report, which Greenpeace describes as a ‘historic win for climate justice,’ indicate that there are legal grounds to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the harm their actions have historically brought forth to the environment due to investments in new fossil fuel projects, creating roadblocks and obstructing the transition to clean and renewable energy.
Greenpeace reported last Friday that the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR) had issued a final report of its multi-year investigation into 47 investor-owned corporations for human rights harms that result from their investments in fossil fuel projects, triggering climate change. The group of 47 companies named in the petition includes BHP Billiton, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Eni, ExxonMobil, Glencore, OMV, Repsol, Sasol, Shell, Suncor, TotalEnergies, and RWE.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Yeb Saño, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Executive Director, remarked: “The findings of the Commission on Human Rights are a vindication for the millions of people whose fundamental rights are being impacted by the corporations behind the climate crisis. This report is historic and sets a solid legal basis for asserting that climate-destructive business activities by fossil fuel and cement companies contribute to human rights harms. The message is clear: these corporate behemoths cannot continue to transgress human rights and put profit before people and planet.”
This final report is the result of a seven-year inquiry, which was carried out by the Commission on Human Rights at the request of communities and individuals that have been severely impacted by extreme weather disasters in the Philippines, such as super typhoon Haiyan.
The publication of the final report follows an initial announcement made in December 2019 at the sidelines of the UNFCCC COP 25 in Madrid, wherein Commissioner Roberto Cadiz stated that the Commission had found fossil fuel companies might in fact be held responsible “where they have been clearly proved to have engaged in acts of obstruction and wilful obfuscation.”
The report includes several findings, stating that carbon majors’ products contributed to 21.4 per cent of global emissions, indicating that these companies had early awareness, notice, or knowledge of their products’ adverse impacts on the environment and climate system, at the latest, in 1965.
According to the report, the carbon majors engaged in wilful obfuscation of climate science – directly by themselves or indirectly through others, singly and/or through concerted action – which has prejudiced the right of the public to make informed decisions about their products, concealing that their products posed significant harms to the environment and the climate system.
Atty. Grizelda “Gerthie” Mayo-Anda, the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), commented:“This case is significant as it is the first case in the Philippines and in the world where human rights harms caused by carbon majors/fossil fuel-producing companies have been exacted/demanded by vulnerable communities and CSOs.”
Aside from liability anchored on acts of obfuscation of climate science, fossil-based companies may also be held to account by their shareholders for continued investments in oil explorations for largely speculative purposes, based on the findings of this report.
Furthermore, the report explains that all acts to obfuscate climate science and delay, derail, or obstruct the energy transition may be a basis for liability, elaborating that climate change denial and efforts to delay the global transition from fossil fuel dependence still persist. The report also found that these obstructionist efforts were driven, not by ignorance, but by greed as fossil fuel enterprises continue to fund the electoral campaigns of politicians, with the intention of slowing down the global movement towards clean, renewable energy.
Beckie Malay, Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), stated:“Let us not waiver in our efforts to hold the carbon majors accountable, as we all are in a huge climate crisis.”
Moreover, the report clearly states that carbon majors have the corporate responsibility to undertake human rights due diligence and provide remediation. In light of this, business enterprises – including their value chains, doing business in, or by some other reason within the jurisdiction of, the Philippines – may be compelled to undertake human rights due diligence and held accountable for failure to remediate human rights abuses arising from their business operations.
“The era where the fossil fuel industry and its backers can get away with and profit from their toxic practices is coming to an end. We commend the CHR for its commitment to uphold climate justice; it sets a courageous example for other similar institutions and governments around the world. With the already profound threats of the climate emergency, countries like the Philippines must exercise moral leadership and champion a just transition and abandon the outmoded fossil fuel apparatus, in line with the Paris Agreement,” added Saño.
While the report is not expected to resolve climate change, environmental activists consider it to be one step toward holding corporations responsible for the worsening climate crisis, which leads to human rights violations. In lieu of this, the activists urge governments and world leaders to adopt the report’s findings and hold big polluters responsible for the climate-damaging impacts of their business activities.
“We expect the government to urgently act on these findings, and work on people-centered policies that will hold climate-polluting businesses accountable, prevent further harm, usher in the energy transition, and ensure a just, safe, sustainable and peaceful future for the people,” concluded Saño.