Environmentalists Sue VW Over Greenhouse Gases
With an oversized scale, activists from Greenpeace outside VW's board meeting urge the company to be more climate friendly. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace

Environmentalists Sue VW Over Greenhouse Gases

By Simon Johns - Dec 15, 2021

A group of environmentalists have opened a civil lawsuit against Volkswagen Group, contending that the auto company has infringed on their rights. If successful, the action could open the door to other cases against companies with headquarters in Germany.

The plaintiffs, which include climate activist Clara Mayer and Greenpeace Germany’s executive directors, are suing Volkswagen to stop producing and distributing light-duty internal combustion engine vehicles and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65%, said Benjamin Stephan, Greenpeace Germany’s spokesperson for transport and climate change. 

The action was made possible by a Federal Constitutional Court ruling in May that found Germany’s 2019 Climate Change Act is in part unconstitutional by not sufficiently protecting Germans’ physical well-being, property and ability to make a living now and in the future.

>Read more about Germany’s carbon commitment here.

Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker and the second biggest in the world after Japan’s Toyota, has a carbon footprint comparable to that of Australia’s annual emissions. 

“We totally acknowledge that the transition we’re asking from them is not easy,” Stephan told Sustainability InSite.

The company is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint by investing in battery electric vehicles. It has also stated that it is aiming for full electrification by 2040. But Stephan thinks this is not enough to reduce the company’s emissions by then.

“There’s still a considerable gap from what they are planning right now and what our motion is asking them to do,” Stephan said. “The difference … until 2040 is 2 gigatons. That’s a lot of emissions – two-and-a-half years’ worth of German annual emissions over the course of 18 years.” In the meantime, Stephan remarked, the company is still pushing more-profitable diesel SUVs. 

Representatives from Deutsche Umwelthilfe, an environmental protection and consumer non-governmental organization, is at the same time taking action against Daimler and BMW, the next biggest carmakers in the country. 

If successful, these suits could set a precedent for others to sue companies for the impact of their products and operations. Only private individuals can open cases against German companies and only if it can be demonstrated that their carbon footprint is on a large enough scale.

This is uncharted legal territory in Germany, but the litigants used a similar case in the Netherlands as a template for their actions. Friends of the Earth and a group of private citizens successfully sued Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its carbon footprint. 

“Indeed, this is a new tendency in NGO strategy,” Sebastian Doerr, the managing director of Lubtrading, a base oil trading company in Luxembourg, told Sustainability InSite. Doerr expressed concern that responsibility for emissions is being placed on the wrong shoulders.

“Is the pollution caused by the company bringing a product to market or is it the consumer?” he said. “I will sue my butcher as my doctor told me I am eating too much meat!” 

Lubricant companies are unlikely to be in the firing line, because the scale of their emissions profile must pass an as-yet undefined threshold. 

“Our industry is somewhere in the middle,” Doerr said. “Our carbon footprint, as such, is not that high, and we ensure low friction and wear. But we mainly rely on fossil sources and are seen to be close  to the chemical and oil industries.”

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