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Donald Pols: “Shell is prepared to adapt its fossil fuel business model, but it is a prisoner of its shareholders” | Climate change | Climate and Environment


Donald Pols (Pretoria, South Africa, 49 years old), director of Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of the international environmental organization Friends of the Earth, could not contain himself this Thursday at the doors of the court in the city of The Hague where the NGO had just made story. He jumped for joy, almost seemed to be dancing, and released the tension accumulated over five years of intense work. His organization had sued the oil multinational Shell, based in The Hague, for not adapting its business model of exploitation and production of fossil fuels to climate change, and the judges agreed with the environmentalists. The ruling, which the company plans to appeal, appeals to the violation of human rights derived from polluting without restraint, and orders Shell to reduce, by 2030, 45% of its net CO₂ emissions, compared to 2019. It is a decision unique in its class, because the nearly 2,000 cases of this type opened in the world are directed against governments and not against companies. And it is very special for Pols, because it appeals to responsibility, its vital axis, which it claims individually and collectively. Still excited, the ecologist maintains that it is an honor to have contributed to the fight against global pollution. The joy shared with his colleagues was liberating. The reception of his family and the joy of his three children when they return home, unforgettable.

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Director of Milieudefensie (defense of the environment) for five years, Pols previously headed the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in China and has worked on technology transfer to developing countries from the Dutch Center for Energy Research. The Shell case has given visibility to Milieudefensie (who filed the lawsuit along with six other environmental organizations and the support of more than 17,000 citizens) and events have been precipitated. The judicial precedent set this Thursday already has its corollary in France, where the group Notre Affaire à Tous (our business for everyone) has announced that it will use the arguments of the sentence in a similar appeal, still ongoing, filed in 2019 against the firm Total gala. Pols believes that the major global polluters will need a few weeks to realize the relevance of what happened. They will then act swiftly to avoid conviction by the courts. “It cannot be ignored that the future of all of us is at stake,” he says in a telephone conversation.

Question. As soon as the ruling was known, Jeroen van der Veer, who was Shell’s president and CEO from 2004 to 2009, has said that the judges have gone too far in imposing speed on the move to sustainable energy, which Shell plans for 2050, because it is better not to risk losing businesses.

Answer. We have been in talks with Shell for decades, but since this ruling we have not heard from them officially. It is not the only company making these arguments on a global scale. They are a form of pressure. Something like indicating to the governments that if they are forced to adapt to the reduction of CO₂ emissions, the national economy will be in danger. That is unacceptable to society, and we have an obligation to tell these firms to deliberately stop alarming us because it is not true. Shell knows. The Dutch judges’ ruling is in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and also follows the EU’s objectives in this area. I do believe that the European Union will adjust its tax policy to prevent other companies that operate in the community space from having greater advantages than Shell, due to this court decision.

P. The Paris Climate Agreement obliges governments, but companies are excluded, doesn’t their absence make it difficult to reduce CO₂ emissions?

R. The Shell ruling can be interpreted as a signal from the courts that it is not possible to continue like this. There are 25 large companies responsible for half of CO₂ emissions globally, and Shell is among them. If they don’t participate, 50% of what they pollute escapes us. So the ruling is also a reflection that in many countries, and surely also in the Netherlands, the relationship between multinationals and the Executive has become too close. The Hague judges are not going to destroy Shell because it is prepared to adapt its fossil fuel business model to climate change, but it is a prisoner of its shareholders, who have so far voted against it. The ruling orders it to reduce the greenhouse gases it generates, which is a form of counterweight to shareholder power. On the other hand, note that Shell’s market value has not dropped these days. In other words, even investors believe that this type of company will be able to handle the energy transition.

Milieudefensie workers celebrate the sentence against Shell on May 26, 2021.
Milieudefensie workers celebrate the sentence against Shell on May 26, 2021.Marten van Dijl / Milieudefensie

P. Shell employs a large number of people in the Netherlands. Is there a government fear of importuning her?

R. The company is a great employer who also lacks imagination. The same as the Government, on the other hand. There is no reason to think that you are incapable of changing your business model and keeping your workers. The move towards sustainable energy will not be easy, but it can also create jobs. If there is a firm prepared for this transition, it is Shell, because they are used to facing challenges, undertaking complex projects and making difficult decisions. Leveraging it to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy will not destroy it. On the contrary, such a step ensures that it is the champion of a faster transition towards a sustainable energy system. The International Energy Agency [IEA, en sus siglas en inglés] says that if we want to keep the rise in world temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we cannot undertake new and large oil and gas exploitation projects. So there will be more firms to accelerate the change.

P. The judges also say that Shell must take responsibility for reducing pollution caused by its customers. How to achieve it, when the consumer may opt for another company if they cannot find what they are looking for?

R. I don’t want to sound philosophical, but what sets us apart as human beings is the ability to face challenges and change. And what defines us is not the purchase of a new car, but the relationships we establish. You can support renewable energy, go more by bike, walk and use public transport; consume otherwise. The best thing in life is not the latest model of mobile phone, but the experiences: the children, the first kiss… add whatever you want. It’s about being active and drawing attention to governments. We appeal to human rights in the lawsuit because we are talking about the future of all. Shell indicates that it will appeal, but perhaps it will be worse off. The judges pointed out that they could have taken 2010 as the reference date for the 45% reduction in CO de emissions. We’ll see.

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