On 27 June, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in partnership with the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law published its sixth annual ‘Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2024 Snapshot’ Report. The Report examines the key trends emerging from the 230 climate litigation cases brought globally in the 2023 calendar year.  

Key takeaways

  • Although the number of climate cases brought in a single year appears to have peaked in 2021, climate litigation continues to present a major risk to corporates.
  • Climate litigation against corporates is diversifying beyond fossil fuel companies to a wide range of other sectors including airlines, the food and beverage industry, e-commerce and financial services.
  • 2023 was a significant year for cases based on human rights, reflecting a growing trend in the use of human rights arguments in climate cases.
  • Over 70% of climate litigation cases in 2023 were filed by individuals or non-governmental organisations or both. This trend reflects an effort by civil society actors to use the courts to raise concerns about climate action and mirrors the rise in “strategic” climate litigation.
  • The number of “strategic” climate litigation cases, aimed at influencing corporate governance and decision-making or policy outcomes, continues to rise. These strategies include:
    • Bringing “climate-washing” (or "green washing") cases, which target allegedly misleading green claims made by companies and are often centred on claims around the climate neutrality of products and services. The large growth in these types of cases has been a major trend in recent years. There have been notable successes (with over 70% of cases filed since 2016 being decided in favour of the claimant), as companies have been found under consumer protection laws, for example, to lack sufficient data to support the green claims made about their products and services. We discuss green washing and the ways businesses can protect themselves against such claims in this article.
    • Requiring companies to integrate climate considerations into decisions on a particular project or policy.
    • Attempting to reduce the profitability of high-emitting activities by requiring companies to compensate claimants for losses allegedly suffered as a result of those activities.
    • Alleging that companies have failed to adapt to a low-carbon economy.
    • Requiring companies to change their general corporate strategies to take environmental considerations into account. Tort and human rights laws have been the legal hooks on which claimants have hung these “corporate framework cases”. The Smith v Fonterra case, which will now proceed to trial following the New Zealand Supreme Court decision earlier this year [read our article], is an example of such a case.
    • Attributing personal responsibility for failure to manage climate risks adequately to particular individuals such as directors and officers. The Report noted that “considerable growth” is anticipated in this area. We will continue to watch this space with particular interest.

Future trends of climate litigation

The Report predicts that future trends in climate litigation will include:

  • Post-disaster cases: which will focus on recovery efforts following climate disasters; and
  • Cases based on a new crime of ‘ecocide’, often referred to informally as ‘destroying the planet’. The concept of ecocide is gaining traction and ecocide legislation is being adopted in several European countries. For example, the new Belgian Criminal Code approved in February 2024 made Belgium the first country in the EU to recognise ecocide as an international crime. This is unlikely to reach New Zealand any time soon.

Outcomes and impacts of climate litigation

The Report concludes that the “phenomenon” of climate litigation “continues to drive shifts in thinking and behaviour among many stakeholder groups, ranging from the courts and the legal profession to legislators and regulators, financiers and insurers”. We agree with this conclusion.

It remains crucial for businesses to be aware of the complex landscape of climate litigation, and ESG litigation more broadly, as some of these issues start to converge (for example, in relation to human rights).

We discuss our predictions for climate litigation in New Zealand in this article.

Get in touch

For more information, please get in touch with one of our experts.

Special thanks to Mary Holden for her assistance in writing this article.


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