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Totalénergies: climate change back at the heart of shareholder dialogue

Climate had faded into the background with the American majors’ backtracking on their commitments. But it is back in the spotlight, with the fight by four NGOs against Totalénergies. After losing their case in the Civil Court, they are now back in the Criminal Court, with a charge in the form of a neologism: “Climaticide”.

The word was coined on 8 October 2021 at the Africa-France summit in Montpellier by a group of philosophers, economists, heads of institutions and NGOs, including the president of CCFD-Terre solidaire Sylvie Bukhari-de Pontual, lawyer Guy Aurenche and MEP Pierre Larrouturou. They were already targeting Total, which was not yet called Totalénergies, and its projects in Uganda and Mozambique.

The project involves the construction of a 1,443-kilometre heated oil pipeline (EACOP) linking the Lake Albert oilfields in western Uganda to the Tanzanian coast on the Indian Ocean. The project involves drilling nearly 400 oil wells in the Murchison Falls natural park – the White Nile Falls, one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.  For Totalénergies, it’s a very big deal – a $10 billion investment with Uganda, Tanzania and the Chinese company CNOOC. Opponents point to the resulting displacement of populations and the local impact on the climate.

The tactics employed by the opponents are akin to a “proxy fight”. Unable to achieve their goal either through demonstrations or civil court proceedings, they are taking the case to criminal court, and the qualification of “climaticide”, a first. Nor is there any precedent for this in other countries.

In October 2019, TotalEnergies had already been taken to court by Friends of the Earth, Survie and four Ugandan associations, which criticised it for carrying out the EACOP/Tilenga project.

At the same time, the NGO Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth, took Shell to court in the same way. The Dutch courts ordered the oil company to reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030. On the strength of this success, Friends of the Earth and its lawyer Robert Cox have threatened legal action against thirty carbon-intensive companies, including BP, RWE and Unilever, by 2022. None of these lawsuits went anywhere, as the companies had changed their climate strategy beforehand.

In Paris, the courts have so far ruled in favour of Totalénergies. Dismissed by the Paris Court in February, Friends of the Earth and their allies have not thrown in the towel. They have passed the baton to four others, who this time are taking up the criminal case. Darwin Climax Coalitions, Sea Shepherd France, Wild Legal and Stop EACOP-Stop Total in Uganda. The lawyers are William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth, both experienced in environmental battles. They are speaking out in press releases and in their own name, an innovative tactic in the usually hushed world of large listed companies.

The complaint relates to a number of offences: failure to combat a disaster, unintentional injury to the person, destruction, damage or deterioration of property belonging to others likely to create a danger to people, and manslaughter.

Totalénergies is taking a calm, factual approach to the flurry of press releases surrounding this complaint. Whatever the outcome, the case could set a precedent. Above all, it has the advantage of putting the climate back at the centre of shareholder dialogue.

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