In a global first for climate breakdown litigation, judges from Germany have visited Peru to determine the level of damage caused by Europe’s largest emitter in a case that could set a precedent for legal claims over human-caused global heating.
Judges and court-appointed experts visited a glacial lake in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range this week to determine whether Germany’s largest electricity provider, RWE, is partially liable for the rise in greenhouse gases that could trigger a devastating flood.
Framed by majestic ice-capped peaks, Lake Palcacocha has swollen in volume by 34 times in the last five decades. A peer-reviewed study links accelerated glacial melt caused by global heating to the substantial risk of an outburst flood which could trigger a deadly landslide inundating the city of Huaraz below.
In 2017, judges in Hamm, Germany, made legal history by accepting a case brought by farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya against RWE, asking for €17,000 (£14,490) for the costs of preventing damage from a potentially devastating outburst flood from the lake.
“As a mountain guide I have been able to understand from the summit how glacial melt is happening right in front of our eyes,” Lliuya, 41, said, near the Palcaraju glacier, a sheer wall of ice and snow which looms over the lake.
Lliuya’s house in Huaraz’s hardscrabble Nueva Florida neighbourhood lies in the flood path where about 50,000 people would be under threat. The local authorities have established an early warning system that would set off sirens in case the lake breaches its banks.
“It is a possibility that a large chunk of rock with ice on it falls into the lake then we are talking about the possibility of millions of cubic metres [of water overflowing],” said Dr Martin Mergili, an expert in geomorphology at Austria’s Graz University.
Mergili said while the Palcacocha Lake was a high-risk example it was far from the only one in the Andes mountain chain, which holds nearly all the world’s tropical glaciers, most of which are in Peru.
“In the last 10 years we have had various glacial lake outburst floods which were triggered by instabilities of glacier-sized walls,” he added.
The German court has already agreed that RWE would be liable for the damages if it can be proved that the glacier poses a flood risk and that climate breakdown had caused it to melt.
“To my knowledge, this is the absolute first case globally where judges travel from one country, where the jurisdiction is, to the country where the damage is, where it is actually climate change-related,” said Roda Verheyen, an environmental lawyer who represents Lliuya.
“This is not the first claim that has used climate science, there are many others,” said Petra Minnerop, associate professor of International Law at Durham University. “However, this would be one of the first cases that could make use of attribution studies.”
Attribution studies seek to test whether – and by how much – climate breakdown may be responsible for extreme weather events; such as extreme flooding, droughts, excessive heat or hurricanes.
The case could have implications for fossil fuel companies. RWE is being sued for having contributed to 0.47% of historical global emissions. Firms like BP and Shell could also face similar cases in the future.
“This is the only case in the entire world to this day that looks at the responsibility of private emitters of greenhouse gases to take responsibility for the impacts of climate change in a different country,” said Verheyen. “And for some reason – which I cannot explain – it remains the only one.”