(Reuters) — German automakers emerged unscathed through a series of lawsuits led by environmental groups demanding they curb their carbon emissions, with the final ruling handed down on Friday — but the battle is not over, with all plaintiffs vowing to appeal.
The heads of Greenpeace Germany and environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe, climate activist Clara Mayer and farmer Ulf Allhoff-Cramer targeted three automakers with lawsuits in 2022.
The filings, against Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, represented the first time citizens in Germany sued companies for exacerbating climate change.
“We knew this was new legal territory in Germany and that it would be a long journey,”; said Martin Kaiser, head of Greenpeace Germany. “But the social dialogue on this has come a long way. … A global topic like climate change needs to be regulated.”
The lawsuits required automakers to end production of cars that emit fossil fuels by 2030 and ensure that the carbon dioxide emitted by their cars and factories before then does not exceed a carbon budget calculated by the NGOs.
In what the plaintiffs hoped would set a legal precedent for taking action against other companies, they argued that the automakers’ carbon footprints violate their right to live a life free of greenhouse gases, enshrined in a ruling by Germany’s federal court in May 2021.
Farmer Alhoff-Cramer also claimed that Volkswagen’s emissions hurt his livelihood.
In a series of hearings, the judges ruled that the link between the civil rights violation and the automakers’ actions was not clear enough, although some added that this could change in the future, giving hope to the plaintiffs, who all plan to appeal.
The automakers welcomed the rulings, laid out their electrification goals and argued that such issues should be decided through political debate, not lawsuits.
Still, lawyers contacted by Reuters said carmakers can expect to face tougher battles in court as the public grows more concerned about climate change, with companies increasingly held responsible for the effects of their entire supply chain.
“The problem is that society is changing,” said a senior lawyer, who declined to be named. “There will be more and more Greta Thunberg types on the jury in the future.”