A new report has detailed an “explosion” in legal challenges against corporate climate commitments, claims about product attributes, overstated investments or support for climate action, and failure to disclose climate risks, with case numbers almost trebling since 2020.
According to a new analysis from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 26 so-called “climate-washing” cases were filed against corporate actors in 2022 compared to less than 10 in 2020.
High profile examples include the directors of Shell being personally sued by environmental law group ClientEarth for allegedly failing to adequately manage the risks posed to the oil and gas company by climate change, and BNP Paribas being taken to court by a raft of NGOs over its climate credentials, investment in fossil fuels and contribution to climate change.
The report, “Global trends in climate change litigation: 2023 snapshot,” found 266 climate-related cases were filed in 2021, followed by a further 222 new cases in 2022.
One of the most significant groups of climate-washing cases to emerge in recent years have been cases challenging the truthfulness of corporate climate commitments.
Although the rate of new cases slowed last year, the report found the diversity of cases was growing. For example, its authors registered more litigation focused on biodiversity, the duties of governments and corporations to protect the ocean, extreme weather events and short-lived climate pollutants.
Moreover, of the 2,341 historic climate-related litigation cases analyzed in the report, 1,157 have been brought since 2015 — the year of the Paris Agreement. Of these, 1,590 were filed in the U.S., 130 in Australia, 102 in the U.K., and almost 70 cases were filed with the Court of Justice of the EU.
The study also found that more than 50 percent of climate cases have “direct judicial outcomes that can be understood as favorable to climate action and in some cases these have led to well documented changes in policy.”
However, while a number of successful cases have led to changes in policy, climate cases continue to have indirect impacts on decision-making regardless whether successful.
The authors of the report, Joana Setzer and Kate Higham, said that while cases concerned with mis- and disinformation on climate change are “far from new,” recent years have seen an “explosion” of climate-washing cases filed before both courts and administrative bodies such as consumer protection agencies.
The growth in climate-washing cases reflects broader concerns with corporate accountability for climate pledges.
“One of the most significant groups of climate-washing cases to emerge in recent years have been cases challenging the truthfulness of corporate climate commitments, particularly where these are not backed up by adequate plans and policies,” they said.
“The growth in climate-washing cases reflects broader concerns with corporate accountability for climate pledges along with ongoing debates about the role of companies in climate decision-making.”
The report, released late last week, also found that in the 12 months to May, climate-related cases were identified in seven new countries — Bulgaria, China, Finland, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Turkey — while more than 130 cases have been filed in the Global South.
The report follows fresh warnings from the European Banking Authority of a “clear increase” in potential cases of greenwashing across all financial sectors, especially in banking and investment.
A poll commissioned by advisory firm Portland Litigation and Disputes also found U.K. public “overwhelmingly” supports companies and governments being taken to court over climate impacts, damage to the environment and instances of greenwashing.