Saul Luciano Lliuya, a farmer who lives near Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes, has sued Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk (RWE), a major German utility company, to pay for the impact of climate change on his community. A court in Hamm, Germany, has agreed to hear the case.
“Those responsible are the big industries that have burned coal... that have burned petroleum," Luciano told Reuters news agency. "The main objective of what we want to achieve is that these businesses stop polluting.”
RWE is a 120 year old company, headquartered in Essen, Germany, that sells electricity and natural gas to some 23.4 million customers in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the Czech republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Turkey. The company had a turnover of €45.8 billion in 2015 and produced 216.1 terawatt hours that year.
The lawsuit alleges that since RWE has produced an estimated 0.47 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by industry, it should therefore be liable to pay an equivalent percentage of the environmental costs of mitigating the impact.
Luciano, who lives in the town of Huaraz in the foothills of the Cordillera Blanca mountains, grows potatoes and corn and raises a few animals on his land. Glaciers abound in the mountains nearby but they are shrinking fast because of global warming, dumping water into the lake, which has expanded in volume 30-fold in the last 40 years. Geologists say that a large avalanche could cause a 100 foot high wave that would inundate Huaraz.
With the help of Germanwatch, an NGO based in Bonn, Luciano filed his lawsuit in November 2015 before a court in Essen, asking the company to pay €17,000 ($20,000) to pay for flood protection for his home. “I would like to return home to the mountains and tell the people that I was able to do something for them,” Luciano told journalists at a court hearing in Germany last year.
The company rejects the demand that it should pay Luciano. “Of course we care about the plight of Mr Lliuya... but we stand by our view that one entity cannot be held responsible for something that is caused by so many around the world,” RWE spokesman Guido Steffen told reporters.
The original lawsuit was dismissed by judge in Essen but a higher court in the town of Hamm accepted an appeal last November. “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property,” the judges ruled.
“This is a major success not just for me, but for the people of Huaraz and everywhere in the world threatened by climate risks,” Luciano said in an official statement. His German backers were elated. “It’s good news for the many potential plaintiffs worldwide who will be emboldened to take action themselves,” Klaus Milke, chairman of Germanwatch added.
However, the lawsuit is intended to be symbolic. “It’s not a solution for every small-scale farmer to file a lawsuit against a large emitter,” Noah Walker-Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester who is advising Luciano, told Reuters. “There should be international mechanisms or solutions for these people who are affected by climate change to receive support, and at the moment, there’s nothing like that.”
The German lawsuit is one of several that have been filed to hold greenhouse gas emitters accountable. In the Philippines disaster victims joined forces with the international NGO Greenpeace to submit a complaint to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR) against 47 large fossil fuel and cement companies over their role in "human-induced climate change" that "interferes with the enjoyment of Filipinos' fundamental rights."
In California, the cities of Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco and Santa Cruz have sued 29 fossil fuel companies and a group of U.S. youth filed a lawsuit in Oregon in 2015 with the help of an NGo named Earth Guardians.
The mayor of Richmond, one of California's poorest cities, made a very similar argument to that made by Luciano. “With 32 miles of shoreline, more than any other city on San Francisco Bay, Richmond is at extreme risk from sea level rise,” Tom Butt said in a statement issued earlier this month. “We have two rail lines, 3,000 acres of public waterfront parks, vulnerable neighborhoods, two wastewater treatment plants, and a refinery, all subject to inundation. Sea level rise is already affecting our long-term planning and will cost our community far more than any foreseeable resources we have to mitigate it.”