Indonesia islanders file climate lawsuit against Swiss cement group Holcim

Residents of an Indonesian island threatened by climate change have pressed ahead with their legal action against Swiss cement giant Holcim, as litigation over the effects of climate change gathers momentum in 2023.

The compensation case mirrors a landmark lawsuit brought by a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide against RWE over the German energy supplier’s contribution to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

The four residents of Pulau Pari filed the case on Monday in the Swiss canton of Zug, where Holcim is headquartered, following a “conciliation meeting” last year where they failed to reach a resolution.

The island residents aim to hold Holcim liable for its pollution and are seeking compensation for “climate damages”. They argue that the 1,500 people living on Pari are at significant risk of losing their livelihoods due to sea level rise and flooding, even though they had contributed little to global emissions.

They are demanding that Holcim pay 0.42 per cent of the cost of damages already incurred and impending, and of new flood protection measures, since they argue the company contributed 0.42 per cent of the global fossil fuel and cement emissions put into the atmosphere since 1751, citing a study by research group the Climate Accountability Institute.

They are also asking the company — which had its net zero emissions plans approved by the influential Science Based Targets initiative oversight group — to commit to more rapidly reducing its carbon emissions.

Cement making requires high temperatures traditionally generated by fossil fuels that contribute the greenhouse gases behind climate change.

“Our existence is under threat,” said Asmania, one of the plaintiffs. “We want those responsible to now finally take action.”

Holcim said climate action was “a top priority” and it did not believe that “court cases focused on single companies are an effective mechanism to tackle the global complexity of climate action”.

Why is cement so hard to decarbonise?

The basic chemistry of cement makes it very difficult to decarbonise: the main ingredient is clinker, made from limestone heated in a kiln. As the limestone heats it releases a lot of carbon dioxide and changes its molecular structure.

This chemical reaction accounts for as much as 70 per cent of the emissions from cement making, and a remaining 30 per cent come from the energy to heat the kiln. For every 10 tonnes of cement produced, six tonnes of carbon dioxide end up in the atmosphere.

When every step of the concrete supply chain is taken into account, the industry carbon footprint is among the worst.

Climate litigation has ballooned in recent years as individuals and activists have sought to hold polluters to account, or force governments and companies to make greater efforts at emissions reduction.

In the legal fight involving RWE, the farmer who is the plaintiff is seeking to hold the company responsible for its historical carbon and methane emissions, and payment for flood defences to protect his Andean town.

The Indonesian islanders are using a similar argument, seeking to prove a causal link between the company’s pollution and the climate-related destruction they are suffering.

Climate-related litigation is increasingly centred on questions of human rights. A group of Swiss women are suing their government via the European Court of Human Rights on grounds that it has not cut national emissions fast enough, putting their health at risk from heatwaves that have become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

The civil complaint filed by the Indonesian islanders is based on the alleged infringement of certain “personality rights” protected by Swiss law, including a right to economic advancement.

The case is supported by aid group Swiss Church Aid HEKS/EPER, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Indonesian environmental organisation WALHI.

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