Federal court hears case of farmer suing major automaker over greenhouse gas emissions

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On May 20, 2022, the Detmold district court negotiated a farmer’s climate protection lawsuit against a large German automobile manufacturer. The plaintiff asserted that the production of gas-powered vehicles by the defendant led, among other things, to a violation of his fundamental right to a “freedom related to greenhouse gases”. The plaintiff is demanding that the defendant reduce the share of gas-powered vehicles in its total production to 25% for the period 2021-2029 and completely phase out the production of gas-powered vehicles by 2030. The court expressed doubts about the merits of the case, but left both parties free to submit further briefs. A decision is scheduled for September 9, 2022.

Background and Further Implications

The plaintiff owns and operates an organic farm in Detmold, Germany. In essence, he argues that the future of his farm is threatened by the effects of climate change, particularly droughts, heat waves and heavy rainfall. In his view, car manufacturers like the defendant are partly responsible for these effects due to their greenhouse gas emissions. The plaintiff contends that the defendant’s business activities therefore adversely affect his property rights, his health and his right to “zero greenhouse gases”. According to the plaintiff, this right was recognized by the Federal Constitutional Court Neubauer et al. against Germanywhich led to several amendments to the Federal Climate Protection Act (“Federal Climate Protection Act“) last year. This right to a greenhouse gas-related freedom enables every individual to free themselves from undue burdens associated with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such emission reduction burdens are a consequence of over-exploitation of the remaining global greenhouse gas budget of other individuals or companies. With In other words, if the automaker’s activities today result in excessive greenhouse gas emissions, the plaintiff will ultimately have to endure far more drastic measures in the future to stay within the global framework of the greenhouse gas budget.The plaintiff believes that these measures will restrict his freedom to do certain things to do, such as maintaining his farming business and passing it on to his heir, and travelling.

The plaintiff is represented by an environmental lawyer specializing in climate protection disputes, who also represents climate activists in parallel proceedings against the same car manufacturer before the Wolfsburg District Court. She has also acted as attorney for several plaintiffs Neubauer et al. against Germany. She also represents the plaintiff in the much-advertised Huaraz Case, a dispute between a Peruvian farmer and a German energy company over damage caused by the melting of a glacier near the farmer’s hometown of Huaraz, Peru. That Huaraz is currently pending before the Higher Regional Court of Hamm, which had previously pointed out that the case of the Peruvian farmer could be well-founded and which would also be the court of appeal in the current proceedings before the Regional Court of Detmold. Presumably, climate activists and lawyers were selected to support the plaintiff due to the location of his farm in the district of Hamm, in order to obtain a positive verdict at least in the appeals process.

The Farmer’s Desires

The plaintiff has three main claims:

  • The defendant is to reduce the share of gas-powered vehicles in its total production to 25% for the period between 2021 and 2029;
  • The defendant is to completely stop the production of gas-powered vehicles by 2030; and
  • The defendant should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65% ​​by 2030 compared to its emissions in 2018.

The preliminary reactions of the court

The court expressed serious doubts about the merits of the case for several reasons: First, the court found that the plaintiff’s request, the defendant’s, to reduce the share of gas-powered vehicles to 25% of all their vehicles sold between 2021 and 2029 made no sense , since we have already reached the year 2022.

The court also stated that the plaintiff had to state more precisely whether he was already suffering from the consequences of climate change or was only threatened by them. The causal connection between the emissions of the defendants and an impairment of the rights of the plaintiff is also determined by the court – in contrast to the Higher Regional Court of Hamm in the judgment of v Huaraz Case. The court added that (i) the defendant’s emissions are not illegal unless there are clear government guidelines for how long the defendant can produce gas-powered cars, and (ii) there is no clear guideline for determining a remaining greenhouse gas emissions budget the defendant.

Regarding the allegedly violated right to a greenhouse gas-related freedom, the court stated that it doubted any such right at all. The court also pointed out that it is up to the legislature, rather than the judiciary, to set the defendant’s greenhouse gas budget. Finally, the court found that the provision to which the plaintiff relies, § 1004 BGB, only grants the plaintiff a right to damages. However, the defendant has a discretion as to the means of remedying the damage. The court therefore assumes that it has no authority to tell the defendant how to reduce its emissions.

Next steps and outlook

The plaintiff’s attorney disagreed with the court’s statements, while the defendant’s attorney did not respond to either the court’s statements or the plaintiff’s statements. The court then gave the plaintiff the opportunity to respond in writing to the court’s preliminary statement by June 30, 2022, while the defendant may file a rebuttal on August 12, 2022 (with a hearing or warrant of evidence) scheduled for September 9, 2022.

After staying under the radar for months, the case gained media attention just before the hearing. This attention was reinforced by the court’s skeptical preliminary considerations, which contradict those of the Hamm Higher Regional Court Huaraz Case. And the contrast became even clearer when, just a week later, the judges of the Higher Regional Court in Hamm, together with experts, visited the Peruvian lake to determine the amount of the alleged damage to the German energy company

The Detmold district court apparently wants to move forward quickly in this case and shows no intention of waiting for the results of the taking of evidence in the proceedings Huaraz Case. However, it could still decide to schedule another hearing or gather evidence if further submissions from the plaintiff convince it (perhaps coupled with information from the Huaraz case that can be provided first-hand by the plaintiff’s attorney).

In any case, developments in both cases should be closely monitored in the event of favorable decisions; Both the Detmold Regional Court and the Hamm Higher Regional Court could become process centers for climate activists against those who cause serious harm in the private sector.

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