Litigation brought against corporates for “climate washing” has increased, with 26 cases launched around the world in 2022, compared with only ten in 2020, according to a report from the London School of Economics.
The cases cover claims in relation to corporate climate commitments, product attributes, overstated investments, support for climate action and failures to disclose climate risk.
The authors of the report, Joana Setzer and Catherine Higham, based at the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, say that one of the biggest litigation groups is those involving climate commitments not backed by adequate policies.
“Cases concerned with mis- and disinformation on climate change are far from new,” the pair say, “but the last few years have seen an explosion in ‘climate washing’ cases filed by courts and administrative bodies, such as consumer protection agencies.”
Coming to America?
For the time being, the majority of climate-washing cases take place outside the US and account for around four-fifths of litigation. However, the report suggests that the work of the Climate and ESG Task Force, an enforcement body of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the chief US financial watchdog, could change things. The task force actively seeks out climate offences and has been working on new climate-risk disclosure standards for US companies.
The report adds that regulatory activity, such as that of the task force, gives a “steer to courts” that activity damaging to climate is “unacceptable”.
Overall, the global count of climate litigation cases has fallen from 266 in 2021 to 222 new cases last year. However, this is the first fall since 2015 and the researchers caution that it may not mark a downward trend. The drop is thought to be explained by the end of the Trump presidency.
Meanwhile, the European Union has yet to see two new pieces of legislation come on stream—the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive—both of which have been tagged by legal experts as potential causes of a new wave of climate litigation.
It also appears new industry sectors that have so far largely avoided legal claims over climate are now in the crosshairs of campaign groups.
While fossil fuel companies remain the key target for litigation, other sectors have become a focus for legal action, among them “business services” and travel and leisure.
The report reveals cases are also beginning to emerge in new jurisdictions, with courts in Bulgaria, China, Finland, Romania, Thailand, Turkey and Russia all becoming venues for climate claims.
In a comment to the Financial Times, UN rapporteur Ian Fry said that climate litigation was “absolutely necessary”. While cases may have dropped, activists are emerging in new places, and legal tactics may be evolving. Corporates are a long way from the risk of climate litigation receding.