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Climate groups to sue German carmakers

September 3, 2021

Following the success of their case against the German government's underwhelming climate plans, environmental NGOs are now going after companies with big carbon footprints.

Exhaust from a car's tailpipe
The groups argue automakers are bound by a ruling giving future generations the right to climate protectionImage: picture-alliance/Joker/A. Stein

Environmental organizations Greenpeace and Environmental Action Germany (DUH) said Friday that they will sue German carmakers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, as well as oil and gas company Wintershall Dea, over the negative impact the companies have had on the climate.

Two lawyers — Remo Klinger and Roda Verheyen — who helped environmental activists force the German government to commit to more detailed plans of how it will reduce carbon emissions to near zero by 2050 will also represent the plaintiffs in this case, DUH said.

Following the success of the case against the government, the NGOs are hoping to pursue the precedent set by Germany's Federal Constitution Court (BverfG) and uphold the rights of future generations.

"The BVerfG concluded in its groundbreaking climate decision that future generations have a basic right to climate protection. Large corporations are also bound by this!" the BUH said in a tweet.

Companies to be 'held responsible'

The plaintiffs' demands include ending the sale of climate-damaging combustion engines by German automakers by 2030 — five years earlier than an EU ruling imposed — and stopping Wintershall Dea from developing new oil and gas fields by 2026 at the latest.

They say these deadlines are necessary to stay within the limits of the 2015 Paris agreement. The legal action will go ahead if the companies fail to respond to the demands in the next few weeks, the NGOs said.

DUH said the "current and planned measures by the four companies are inconsistent with the Paris climate goals and are therefore unlawful."

The legal team also referred to the decision by a Dutch court in May that companies have to oblige by the Paris climate agreement. The court ruled that Shell must cut its emissions by 45% by 2030 from its 2019 levels. 

"Climate protection is the protection of basic rights. This sentence was confirmed by the Federal Constitutional Court. With this in mind, these companies that produce more CO2 emissions than entire countries are now being held responsible," Remo Klinger said at the press conference announcing their legal intention.

Car brands respond

All three of the German car manufacturers have previously announced plans to transition to producing more eco-friendly electric cars, but environmentalists have said these plans are vague and non-binding.

"The companies' electrification plans are not ambitious enough and too slow. They won't be enough to avert the climate crisis," said Greenpeace's Martin Kaiser.

Daimler, the maker of the Mercedes-Benz brand, said it saw "no basis" for the legal action against them and that it would defend itself "through all legal means."

BMW said in response to the announcement that it was already committed to the Paris climate agreement. Volkswagen, which owns several car brands including Audi, Porsche and Skoda, did not comment.

The threat of legal action against the car companies came days before the IAA auto show, one of the biggest in the world, was set to begin in Munich. Climate activists have said they will protest the event.

ab/sms (dpa, AP, Reuters)