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German court rejects climate lawsuit

Kiyo Dörrer
December 16, 2016

A regional court in Germany on Thursday ruled that a Peruvian farmer's lawsuit seeking damages for melting glaciers at his Andean home is unfounded. Those behind the lawsuit see the ruling as the start of a long fight.

Lawyer Roda Verheyen with Peruvian farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Weihrauch

The delivery of judgment took all of five minutes: The judge announced to the packed courtroom that the court had rejected the suit of the Peruvian farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya. His claim that German energy company RWE must take responsibility for his fate, and that of his town of Huaraz, is unfounded and invalid, the judge said.

Peruvian Lliuya was the first in Europe to sue an alleged perpetrator of climate change in civil court. The farmer and mountain guide sees his home and that of 50,000 others threatened by a melting glacier and possible flood, propelled by climate change.

No legal connection

RWE, the largest single emitter of CO2 in the world, is jointly responsible for this, Lliuya says. RWE continues to run some of the largest coal operations in Europe, including Hambach and Garzweiler strip mines.

The court ruled on December 16, 2016, that the connection between Lliuyas situation and RWE is at most a scientific one - but not legally verifiable. The energy giant can not be held individually liable for the threat of a flood in Peru, the ruling continued.

Peruvian farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya
Lliya: "My people are accustomed to obstacles"Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Stollarz

Lliuya's lawyer Roda Verheyen was disappointed - but remained determined. "I think that the court did not delve in deep enough," she said after the ruling.

Her client, who had returned to Peru, is staying optimistic. "As mountain guides, we are used to traveling up long and rocky roads. Obstacles like this shouldn't discourage us," Lluya said in a statement.

"I'm still hopeful that a German court will give us the chance to show that RWE has contributed to this dangerous situation."

"I am pretty sure that my client will appeal," lawyer Verheyen told DW. The next judicial authority is the Regional Court of Hamm.

Collective irresponsibility?

In concrete terms, the Peruvian farmer had asked for RWE to pay for future safeguards in accordance with its worldwide share of CO2 emissions.

Lliuya and his backers estimate that RWE has been responsible for 0.5 percent of worldwide carbon emissions since the start of industrialization.

In the plaintiff's opinion, that is why the energy company should pay half of a percent of the cost it will take to insure his and his fellow residents' safety.

These necessary measures would be aimed at decreasing water levels in the glacial lake above the Andean city of Huaraz. For that, the farmer is calling for RWE to pay 17,000 euros to the affected municipality, and 6,300 euros for protective works he has already undertaken on his house.

Essen Landgericht Prozess RWE vs Kleinbauern Proteste
Protesters had gathered in front of the courthouse in Essen to show support for the plaintiffsImage: DW/K. Dörrer

The fact that the court does not see a direct link between the farmer's affliction and RWE is a sign of collective irresponsibility, lawyer Verheyen argues.

Her plaintiff told DW in an interview that "countries like Peru are not responsible for the industrial pollution that caused climate change. But it's us who have to live with and suffer under the consequences."

Lliuya is not the only one to put up a fight. In November, a group of American youths officially won the right to sue their government for failing to curb climate change. The 21 plaintiffs are all personally affected by climate change - be it drought or floods. 

Exxon Mobil is also being sued in the US state of Massachusetts for allegedly failing to safeguard residents against climate risks.

In 2015, Dutch citizens were successful in suing to attain greater emission reductions from their government - a similar action is still pending in Belgium.

RWE rejects claims

RWE and its defenders had dismissed the Lliuya's claims as groundless before the trial. The company says that the alleged danger stemming from the melting glacier was not sufficiently proven.

Furthermore, the energy giant added that its actions are in accordance with the law, having received permission under the Emission Trading Act.

Peruvian farmer takes on energy giant

As the ruling upheld, RWE had also argued that the claim against it as a single actor was unwarranted. The energy company had said agriculture and air travel are contributing to global warming as well, and the problem should be tackled on an international and political level.

Until then, the inhabitants of Huaraz will have to live with the danger of flooding. According to the environmental organization Germanwatch, the Andean city is particularly affected by glacial melt: The water level of the glacial lake above the city has quadrupled since 2003.

"Our government is trying to help, but that is not enough. We have to search for other possibilities to protect ourselves," Lliuya told DW.

Whether the path of the civil lawsuit will be successful has yet to be seen. "A fair legal fight sometimes has to go through many court levels - and I am ready for it," lawyer Verheyen concluded.