Saul Luciano Lliuya is a farmer from Peru whose home in the floodpath of the Palcacocha lake which has been swelling with glacial melt-water for the past few decades. Because Lliuya feels “acutely threatened” by the lake, the farmer is now prepared to take one of Germany’s biggest producers of brown coal energy to court and demand compensation. This would make it the first such legal claim in Europe where a company is summoned to pay for its historical role in driving greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the consequences of recent glacier recession is the formation and rapid growth of lakes formed at the snout of glaciers. One risk is that moraines damming these glacial lakes could fail releasing a huge volume of water and creating a glacial lake outburst flood. This happened December 13, 1941, at Lake Palcacocha, Peru, flooding the city of Huaraz and killed several thousand people. Most recently, Lake Palcacocha has yet again reached critical levels and a state of emergency has been declared.
“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” the farmer told the Guardian.
“For a long time, my father and I have thought that those who cause climate change should help solve the problems it causes. Peru is a poor and vulnerable country. The big polluters who have contributed to climate change should now contribute to the solutions of our problems,” Lliuya said.
The Palcacocha lagoon has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times in less than 40 years due to glacial melt. Last year, a team of researchers at University of Texas at Austin modeled the complete Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) process chain from the top of the glacier above Laguna Palcacocha to the city of Huaraz, and found the city and the lingering communities are exposed to a significant flood hazard.
Lliuya chose to sue NWE, a major energy producer and trader from Germany and one of the 90 companies who account for 60% of all man-made greenhouse emissions, ever.
“We have a solid case with respect to RWE’s contribution to greenhouse gases and how that leads to the risk in which Mr Lliuya’s home finds itself,” Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental lawyer representing Lliuya.
“My client approached me with one question: ‘Do you think it is correct that polluters never own up to their responsibility?’ As a lawyer and as a human being, I have to say, it is not fair. Can we do something about it?” she said.
According to the report I mentioned earlier, RWE has contributed with 0.47% of all man-made emissions since 1751. To protect Lliuya’s home and that of his neighbors, the Palcacocha lake needs to be drained, new dams have to be built and old ones repaired. Lliuya is asking RWE to pay 0.47% of the project’s total cost or €20,000.
“The company has to pay its fair share of financing measures to protect those in danger,” said Christoph Bals, of German NGO, Germanwatch, which is supporting the claim. “Companies that create risks for others through their business activity have to shoulder their responsibility,” he said.
Meanwhile, a RWE spokesman said the company has yet to receive any legal claim from Peru. RWE is a big company and obviously €20,000 is peanuts for them, but it would definitely create a precedent, so the company will definitely fight back. In the past couple of years, RWE has renewed its brown coal plants, expelling nine million tons less of carbon dioxide each year. It’s one of the few major fossil fuel companies in the world that’s been actually making progress towards lowering their emissions.
I’m playing the devil’s advocate for a second. I know RWE is still ‘dirty’, but why not go after Exxon (3.2% global emissions), Chevron (3.5%) or BP (2.5%), instead? While it’s true RWE has polluted the atmosphere massively, why not go after a company that’s more close to home – to Peru? My guess is he wouldn’t have stood a chance in a courthouse in the United States, and things won’t be easy for him in Germany either, but at least his case will be heard out there. When you’re going after one company for compensation – which he is perfectly entitled to – a lot of issues can come up. The farmer and the thousands of other present or future environmental refugees deserve to be compensated, but at the same time compensation should come from all stakeholders.
What’s certain is that we’ll be hearing of more such cases in the future, and a lone but brave farmer from Peru might create a precedent that will finally come in the aid of those in dire need. Hopefully, what we should see is a global environmental compensation fund that will finance relocation, climate change adaption measures and moral compensation. All the big companies and developed nations should pitch in based on their contribution to greenhouse gases. Now, we’re not seeing something like this happening – yet.