Climate court cases doubling puts investors at risk

UNEP report finds 'courts are beginning to assess the responsibility of financial institutions for the climate dimensions of their investments'

The number of climate change court cases has more than doubled since 2017 and is continuing to grow, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

In their report, Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review, UNEP and the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia University found climate litigation is becoming an integral part of securing climate action and justice.

The report found the number of climate change cases worldwide has more than doubled from 884 in 2017 to 2,180 in 2022, with 17% of these now being reported in developing countries.

This mirrors a report last year from LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and the Centre for Climate Change and Economics and Policy, which found climate change-related cases had more than doubled worldwide since 2015.

“People are increasingly turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

These include cases against companies on climate grounds, often brought by shareholders, and the increasing implications of this on larger shareholders such as asset managers.

“Courts are beginning to assess the responsibility of financial institutions for the climate dimensions of their investments,” the report noted.

In ESG Clarity’s analysis of climate litigation in the May e-zine this year, Tribe Impact Capital’s Amy Clarke said: “If asset managers are not worried about climate litigation, they should be.”

When it comes to cases against companies, the report found legal challenges based around climate disclosures to be most common.

For example, in Abrahams v. Commonwealth Bank of Australia (2021), shareholders sued the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for disclosure of documents under the Corporations Act of 2001 of the bank’s involvement in a series of fossil fuel projects that potentially infringed the bank’s environmental and social policies. The Federal Court allowed the plaintiffs to inspect a limited scope of documents and ordered the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to produce the relevant documents.

But the report also noted cases against companies for failing to adapt to the impact of climate change, and ones that bring into question corporate responsibility for harms caused by climate change (such as the recent ClientEarth case against Shell directors).

As more companies commit to net-zero targets, the report also said it is likely that questions will be raised as to how these will be implemented. It also predicts more cases in future that look at companies’ responsibilities across countries and jurisdictions.


Natasha Turner

Natasha is global editor at ESG Clarity, part of Mark Allen Financial, and has been a financial journalist for seven years. She has been shortlisted for Story of the Year and Investment Journalist of the...