Climate Litigation Against Companies Surges, Marking a Shift in Global Trends

A new report reveals a significant increase in climate-related lawsuits against corporations, with climate-washing cases emerging as a rapidly expanding area of litigation.

Climate litigation against companies is witnessing a remarkable surge, according to a report published on June 27, 2024, by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The analysis, titled ‘Global trends in climate change litigation: 2024 snapshot,’ indicates that approximately 230 climate-aligned lawsuits have been initiated against corporations and trade associations since 2015, with over two-thirds of those cases filed since 2020.

Historically, climate cases have predominantly targeted governments. However, the report highlights a shift in this trend, with around 40% of cases filed outside the United States now involving companies. In contrast, only 15% of cases within the US target corporations. This emerging trend signifies a growing global focus on holding corporations accountable for their role in climate change.

One of the most rapidly expanding areas of litigation is climate washing, with 47 new cases filed in 2023 against both companies and governments. To date, more than 140 such cases have been filed. The report emphasises that the majority of decided climate-washing cases have ruled in favour of the claimants, confirming that communications were misleading.

2023 also saw significant developments in ‘polluter pays’ cases, with over 30 cases worldwide seeking to hold companies responsible for climate-related harm allegedly caused by their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, six ‘turning off the taps’ cases were identified, challenging the flow of finance to projects not aligned with climate action.

The report is based on an analysis of a dataset containing 2,666 climate litigation cases compiled by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. Around 70% of these cases have been filed since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, with 233 cases filed in 2023 alone.

Climate litigation is also spreading to new territories, with cases filed for the first time in Panama and Portugal, bringing the total number of countries with recorded climate cases to 55. The authors note an increase in climate litigation cases in the Global South, comprising around 8% of all cases.

The US leads in the number of litigation cases filed in 2023, with 129 cases, followed by the UK (24), Brazil (10), Germany (7), and Australia (6). The United States also remains the country with the highest number of documented climate cases overall, with a total of 1745 cases.

The authors conclude that the impact of climate litigation on climate action remains uncertain. While some case types have already had significant impacts on domestic climate governance, the long-term implications of other case types, such as climate-washing cases, remain unclear despite their relative success in the courtroom.

As climate litigation continues to evolve, it is clear that corporations are increasingly in the spotlight, marking a significant shift in the global approach to climate action and accountability.