Four months ago, the District Court in the Hague ruled against oil giant Shell in its actions within the Paris Agreement, ordering it to reduce its CO2 emissions much faster than it had planned. While Shell spokespeople stated that the company would refer to the court of appeal against this verdict, the decision was clearly significant, for it was the first time an oil company was found responsible by a court due to its lack of responsiveness regarding the Paris Agreement. The court verdict was cherished among environmentalist groups and set an important precedent for possible cases in the future. However, as an energy investor talking to the Financial Times said, “It’s far from clear that the best venue to resolve these matters is a courtroom.” The climate question has many aspects due to its energy production roots, including political, diplomatic, and even military.
While binding court decisions similar to the verdict about Shell can be a good solution to the non-binding nature of climate agreements, it is not exactly clear whether or not this bindingness would necessarily be helpful for climate actions expected to be taken, especially by governments. Especially for developing countries, the transition process to green energy and the reduction of CO2 emissions can mean a heavy economic burden, considering high technological and systemic costs. Even if these countries are willing to contribute to the process, they may not be ready to satisfy the necessities and require financial assistance. Court decisions and punitive actions may shift the opinion in these countries to a more conservative stance regarding energy production and climate change, and they may not be wrong altogether. Every country has the first and foremost duty to provide for its citizens and its national defense. Financial means allocated to energy transition can easily be spent elsewhere, including infrastructure or education investments, which would directly increase the life quality of the citizens directly. Under these circumstances, environmentalists or governments of countries leading the global green transition should seek ways to aid developing countries financially rather than taking court decisions and seeking punitive actions. Such actions would only shift the developing countries away from further commitments.
Furthermore, such binding and punitive decisions would also seem like an attempt to build a solidaristic international society for those countries which want, or need, to pursue their own ways. This would result in alienation, shift away from international commitments, and lead to dangerous dilemmas in global diplomacy. The most appropriate example is the relations between China, the US, and Russia. History establishes that when China or Russia faced pressure and sanctions from the West, an outside force, these two countries immediately turned to each other with economic and military convergence. On the other hand, when the West seemed to have good relations with either of them, they loosened the ties between each other and turned to Western partners for all kinds of partnership. Today, China requires vast amounts of energy to provide for its overpopulated cities and holds an important military and economic power, which would be a game-changer if it converged with Russian power. Hence, even though it seems ironic, the best course of action for Western powers who emphasize green transition would be to work with Russia and/or China and not alienate them. If this alienation begins, Russia and China may again turn to each other for partnership in energy issues, and the green transition may be disregarded altogether. Similar concerns apply to almost all developing countries which lack proper necessities to fulfill their green transition responsibilities, such as Turkey, which decided to ratify the Paris Agreement next month. The incentives for these countries can be in many forms, the most important of them being financial. Instead of using a binding and punitive method, environmental groups and governments should find ways of integrating them into the process in accordance with their capabilities and needs.
In short, even though the latest court verdict regarding Shell’s inaction towards the Paris Agreement is a monumental one for the environmental cause, it is probably not the best way forward, especially when it comes to punishing governments rather than big oil companies. If one aims to achieve a pluralist solution to the green question, the outcome will be a tremendous victory for all human beings. On the other hand, if a solidaristic approach based on bindingness and punishments is pursued, it will most probably end in a diplomatic, economic and natural disaster. In a time when our planet and public health are in massive danger, the stakes are too high for the decisions to be taken unilaterally.