London, UK

Climate litigation against companies is on the rise according to analysis published today (27 June 2024) by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

The report ‘Global trends in climate change litigation: 2024 snapshot’ points out that about 230 climate-aligned lawsuits have been initiated against corporations and trade associations since 2015, with more than two thirds filed since 2020. The authors define these cases as examples of strategic litigation which appears to seek to advance a broader climate action agenda. 

Historically, the vast majority of climate cases have been filed against governments. This remains true in 2023, but there is a split between cases filed in the US – the jurisdiction with the largest overall number of cases – and those filed elsewhere. In the US, just 15% of cases were filed against companies, but for cases in the rest of the world around 40% of cases involved companies. 

47 new climate-washing cases were filed in 2023 against companies and governments with “more than 140 such cases filed to date on climate washing, making this one of the most rapidly expanding areas of litigation.” The authors also highlight that most decided climate washing cases have confirmed that communications were misleading. More than half of the nearly 140 climate-washing cases reviewed between 2016 and 2023 have reached official decisions; 54 of these 77 cases, have concluded in favour of the claimant.  

There were also important developments in ‘polluter pays’ cases in 2023 with more than 30 cases worldwide currently seeking to hold companies accountable for climate-related harm allegedly caused by their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. The authors also identified six ‘turning off the taps’ cases, which challenge the flow of finance to projects and activities that are not aligned with climate action. 33 such cases have filed since 2015 have been recorded to date.

The analysis for the report was based on a dataset containing 2,666 climate litigation cases compiled by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. Around 70% of these cases have been filed since 2015, the year the Paris Agreement was adopted. 233 of these cases were filed in 2023. 

The report confirms that there were nearly 50 cases filed in 2023 not aligned with climate goals. This included backlash litigation against environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies, which challenge the incorporation of climate risk in financial decision-making. These cases also included strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) suits against NGOs and shareholder activists that seek to deter them from pursuing climate agendas. Non-aligned cases also included just transition cases, which challenge the distributional impacts of climate policy and green v. green cases, which concern potential trade-offs between climate and biodiversity or other environmental aims.  

Climate litigation cases have continued to spread to new countries, with cases filed for the first time in Panama and Portugal, bringing the total number of countries in which climate cases have been recorded to 55. The authors also confirm that climate litigation cases in the Global South are increasing and gaining more attention. They note “over 200 climate cases from these countries are recorded in the Global database, comprising around 8% of all cases.”  

2023 was an important year for international climate change litigation, with major international courts and tribunals being asked to rule and advise on climate change. Just 5% of climate cases are before international courts, but many of these cases have significant potential to influence domestic proceedings. Last week the UK’s Supreme Court ruled a local council should have considered the full climate impact of burning oil from new wells. 

The US had the highest overall number of litigation cases filed in 2023 with 129, followed by the UK (24), Brazil (10), Germany (7) and Australia (6). The United States remains the country with the highest number of documented climate cases, with 1745 cases in total. Next is Australia, where 132 cases have been identified, but only six new cases filed in 2023 have been recorded so far. 

The authors conclude that “whether climate litigation is advancing or hindering climate action remains difficult to determine. Some types of cases, such as government framework cases, have already had lasting impacts on domestic climate governance.  

“However, the long-term implications of other case types, such as climate-washing cases, remain unclear, despite the relatively high levels of ‘successful’ cases in the courtroom.”  

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