Peruvian farmer takes on German energy giant

Lake Pallqaqucha in 2002. In the last 13 years it has grown fourfold due to the melting glaciers that feed it. [Georg Kaser/Wikimedia]

A farmer from the Peruvian Andes is taking German energy provider RWE to task for its contribution to the melting of a glacier that has endangered his hometown. EURACTIV Germany reports.

It is a classic David vs Goliath story, which unfolded on Tuesday (24 November): a smallholder affected by the consequences of climate change taking on a major European company. According to Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer, RWE should be held responsible for the melting of the Andean glaciers and the resulting threat that has emerged to his hometown of Huaraz.

“I see everyday how the glaciers melt and how the mountain lakes grow,” said Saúl Luciano Lliuya, who works as both a farmer and mountain guide in Huaraz. “For us in the valley, it’s a huge threat. We can’t just wait and see what happens. It’s clear to me that those who should take responsibility are the companies that are causing climate change through their greenhouse gas emissions.”

Why RWE in particular?

It is no surprise that RWE have found themselves in the crosshairs, given their position as one of the largest CO2 emitters in Europe, said the NGO Germanwatch. RWE’s business model is largely dependent on lignite, an environmentally-unfriendly source of energy.

>>Read: German ‘dirty deal’ on brown coal criticised

A recent study found that the company is responsible for around 0.5% of greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of industrialisation. Luciano Lliuya asked Germanwatch for assistance when he went before a court in Essen.

Accordingly, Luciano Lliuya believes that RWE should foot the bill for protection measures that will safeguard the town against the melting glacier. This would potentially mean RWE would have to pay out €20,000, using the 0.5% figure as a basis.

“Precedent” for climate protection

“We support Saúl Luciano Lliuya,” said Klaus Milke, Germanwatch’s chairman. “As the COP21 conference looms near, this case can send a clear signal to the energy sector that emissions must be reduced so that more people are not affected by the consequences of climate change. The causes of the problems must be addressed and be prioritised over dealing with the symptoms.”

>>Read: NGOs call on German banks to stop funding coal

Germanwatch believes that it is not a long term solution to expect those affected, often very poor people, to have to bring their case to the attention of a court. “Ultimately, a political solution will have to take polluters to task”, said Milke.

Luciano Lliuya’s lawyer, Roda Verheyen holds RWE culpable as, “There is a precedent. RWE emits pollutants, particularly from its coal power plants, temperatures rise, glaciers melt and my client’s property is subsequently endangered. We request that the court finds RWE liable.”

RWE sees no “legal basis”

RWE had already rejected an appeal made by Luciano Lliuya in April. Its justification: the group sees “no legal basis” in the claim brought by the Peruvian farmer, a spokesperson for the energy giant explained when asked by on Tuesday (24 November).

The company refused to comment on the latest development, given that it has received no official request, but said that it would let previous rulings speak for themselves. In 2013, the US Supreme Court dismissed a similar case which sought costs based on damage caused by climate change. The “Kivalina vs ExxonMobil” case, between the city of Kivalina and the US oil and gas company ExxonMobil, was launched due to the Alaskan town’s belief that the energy giant was responsible for rising sea levels that flooded the area.

Even in Germany, the Federal Court, and Federal Constitutional Court, during the 1990s rejected a claim that air pollution was caused by specific plant operators.

Wave of lawsuits

Germanwatch is hoping that courts will have a rethink on the issue in the coming year. Luciano Lliuya’s case could unleash a wave of similar claims against other major CO2 emitters. Such a case is unfolding currently in New York, where the Attorney General is considering a case against Exxon Mobil for allegedly misleading the public about the risks of climate change. This could lead to legal action that was seen in the past against the tobacco industry, said Germanwatch.

>>Read: UN climate change expert: National contributions not enough

The odds are stacked against the Peruvian farmer, but his fight could turn out to be symbolic, as he struggles against a giant company to protect his hometown. The Pallqaqucha glacier lake that lies a kilometre above the town, has grown in size by over four times since 2003. Climate change could lead to large blocks of ice breaking off and falling into the lake, causing tsunamis that could be over a meter tall.

According to disaster control authorities, a flood could happen at any time and the lake is considered to be one of the most dangerous in the region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) maintains that the situation is a direct result of climate change.

>>Read: German 2020 climate targets in danger

To permanently avert the risk, large amounts of water have to be pumped out of the lake and new reinforced embankments built. RWE has so far contributed nothing to the costs of these measures.

EU leaders have agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. But heads of state and government watered down the 2030 targets for renewables and for energy efficiency, which are not binding at national level. They lowered a European Commission-proposed 30% increase to at least 27%. That was seen as a backwards step after the binding 20% 2020 targets for efficiency and renewables agreed in the past.

The 2030 targets were a signal of intent before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21). They form the basis of the EU's negotiating position at the COP21 in Paris, which will try and agree an international deal to cap global warming. Depending on the results of the COP21, the Commission and Council could revise the 2030 targets.

The Energy Union is part of the political response to the threat to EU gas supplies. The majority of Russian gas imports to the EU, about 30% of its annual needs, goes through Ukraine. In 2009, Russia turned off the taps, causing shortages in the EU.

Plans for the Union have developed beyond questions of security of supply to encompass issues such as fighting climate change. 

The European Union's Energy Efficiency Directive in late 2012 was expected to trigger the largest revamp of Europe's existing building stock to date and set new standards for public procurement and energy audits. But implementation of the rules at national level has been poor. The EED is as close as the EU comes to an EU-wide energy efficiency strategy anchored by legislation. It is earmarked to be revamped. 

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