A certain stubbornness is said to exist in East Westphalia. Perhaps it is also because of the mentality that Ulf Allhoff-Cramer is trying in court to force a global corporation like Volkswagen to do more climate protection. Above all, however, it is concern for his organic farm in the Lippe district that prompted the 61-year-old to take this bold, some might say megalomaniac, step: “Our farm suffers from drought, heat and heavy rain,” says the farmer. Crop failures are the result. In the past, his beef cattle and their calves could feed themselves solely on the grass that grows on his land. But now that is withering away and the farmer has to buy additional fodder. His forest, “the farmer’s savings bank”, as Allhoff-Cramer says, is also suffering. The spruce trees are victims of the bark beetle, which benefits from the heat and drought. Allhoff-Cramer wants to pass his farm on to his son next year, but the future does not look rosy. “Our farm is under threat,” fears the plaintiff.
It’s not just politics that is to blame, says the East Westphalian, but also industry – above all the car manufacturers, who emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the earth can tolerate. “They are about to destroy our livelihoods,” says Allhoff-Cramer. He wants to end this and is therefore suing VW. His demands: The world’s second largest car manufacturer after Toyota should immediately reduce the proportion of its cars with combustion engines to a maximum of 25 percent and stop selling combustion engines from 2030. In addition, the VW Group is to reduce its CO2 emissions by 65 percent by 2030 compared to 2018.
The complaint, which the district court of Detmold has to deal with, comprises 128 pages. It is the civil court closest to his court. The first oral hearing took place there on Friday. In doing so, the court is making legal history. “It is the world’s first climate lawsuit against a car company,” emphasizes Roda Verheyen, the lawyer for Allhoff-Cramer.
Because that is the case, the farmer is not alone in taking VW to court. His lawsuit is supported by Greenpeace. And his trial is not the only one of its kind. Parallel to the trial in Detmold, complaints by Greenpeace managers and activists against VW in Braunschweig are pending, and the German Environmental Aid is also suing BMW, Mercedes and Wintershall Dea. But the Detmolds are the fastest.
“We are in the middle of the climate crisis,” says Verheyen. The problems Allhoff-Cramer is struggling with are now “the new normal”. The lawyer is probably Germany’s most renowned lawyer in matters of climate lawsuits. She was and is involved in almost all cases in which courts deal with climate protection.
This also applies to the famous climate decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in March last year. In it, Germany’s highest judges upheld the constitutional complaint of nine young people who saw their freedom rights violated by overly lax climate protection requirements. According to the constitutional judges, the CO2 budget is finite. The later the state reacts, the greater the interference with civil liberties would have to be, which affects young people in particular.
Verheyen also wants to use this idea in the trial against VW. Allhoff-Cramer is not only violated in his property rights as far as his farm and forest are concerned and in his fundamental right to health, but also in his “right to receive greenhouse-related freedom”. VW is inadmissibly consuming this fundamental right through excessive emissions. In 2018, the VW Group emitted 582 million tons of CO2 emissions, which corresponds to the annual emissions of Australia. If the lawsuit were successful, it would lead to savings of two billion tons of CO2, which would correspond to a third of the remaining CO2 budget for Germany, says Benjamin Stephan from Greenpeace. However, four-fifths of the 582 million tons are caused by buyers driving their Golfs or Seats. Can this be attributed to Volkswagen?
The group rejects the lawsuit and sees itself wrongly pilloried. Combustion engines are allowed in the European Union until 2035. Can a court override this? VW says no: “It is the task of the democratically elected legislature to shape climate protection with its far-reaching effects,” said the Wolfsburg on Friday. According to the principle of the separation of powers, the design of the necessary measures belongs in parliament. “Disputes before civil courts through lawsuits against individual companies singled out for this purpose, on the other hand, are not the place and the means to do justice to this responsible task,” says the group.
One thing is clear: Allhoff-Cramer, Greenpeace and Verheyen are breaking new ground with the lawsuit. Because so far, the procedures for more climate protection in this country were essentially directed against the state, which should specify more ambitious emission savings or impose driving bans. So far, companies have largely been left out.
Only in the case of the Peruvian farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya, who – also represented by Roda Verheyen – wants to hold RWE liable before the Hamm Higher Regional Court for the imminent flooding of his country in the Andes, is a German company also on trial. In the Netherlands, the district court of The Hague committed the oil multinational Shell in a spectacular process last year to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a net 45 percent by 2030 compared to the 2019 level. Dutch climate protectors had complained that in Germany there are no such class action lawsuits in climate matters, here only people who are affected can sue.
The process is a challenge for the judges in Detmold. They adjourned to September 9 on Friday. “The court has not yet followed all of the arguments in our complaint and has raised a number of questions,” admits Verheyen. “We have to make it clear again that VW was partly responsible for my client’s climate-related damage and that only a Paris-compatible reduction path can eliminate the impairment.” below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The process is unpleasant for Volkswagen, which in recent years has mainly been involved in the legal processing of the diesel scandal. The group relies heavily on electromobility and tries to give itself a climate-friendly image. Ralph Pfitzner, who is responsible for sustainability in the group, emphasizes that the Paris climate protection goals were already committed to in 2018.
VW wants to be CO2-neutral by 2050. By 2030, carbon dioxide emissions in production are to be halved compared to 2018, and emissions from an average car are to be reduced by 30 percent compared to 2018. In 2021, the CO2 footprint of a Group car was reduced by an average of 1.7 tons compared to the previous year. “We are pushing ahead with the transformation at full speed, but the reality is much more complex than Greenpeace conveys,” criticizes Pfitzner.
Organic farmer Allhoff-Cramer sees it differently. VW, he says, will dig its own grave if global warming rises beyond the point at which the process would still be reversible due to excessive greenhouse gas emissions. “Volkswagen would no longer be able to do good business on a destroyed planet,” he says.