Indonesian islanders sue cement producer for climate damages

Residents of an Indonesian island threatened by rising sea levels have begun legal action against the cement producer Holcim.

The claim for compensation, filed in Switzerland by three men and one woman, is understood to be the first major climate damages lawsuit against a cement company.

The four people say they and their families are experiencing serious negative effects from the climate crisis, and want Holcim to pay for compensation and flood defences. They also want it to cut its emissions to limit future damage.

According to Swiss Church Aid (HEKS/EPER), an NGO supporting the case, rising sea levels around Pulau Pari have already led to increased flooding and extensive damage to houses, streets and local businesses. It says large portions of the island are likely to be submerged under water over the next few decades unless there are rapid reductions in global carbon emissions.

Edi Mulyono, one of the claimants, lost a significant amount of revenue from his guesthouse after large-scale flooding on the island in 2021. He described the situation as unjust, given that people from Indonesia have contributed very little to overall global emissions.

Edi Mulyono, one of the claimants
Edi Mulyono is one of the people bringing a claim against Holcim. Photograph: Abdul Baits

A recent study revealed the huge disparity in climate harm, with just a handful of countries responsible for the lion’s share of international economic damage.

The case is modelled on a similar legal challenge being brought by a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide against the energy firm RWE.

A recent report on worldwide trends in climate litigation showed that campaigners are increasingly targeting a wider range of corporate sectors. However, there has been very little legal action to date against the cement industry, even though it is one of the most polluting. Concrete, of which cement is a main ingredient, is estimated to be responsible for 4%-8% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Holcim merged with the French cement firm Lafarge in 2015, making it the largest cement producer in the world, with interests in more than 70 countries. Research by the Climate Accountability Institute suggests that the combined company emitted more than 7bn tonnes of CO2 between 1950 and 2021, and has contributed about 0.42% of all historical global industrial emissions. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s 2021 greenhouse polluters index ranks it 47 out of the Top 100 emitters.

Holcim cement plant in Siggenthal, Switzerland
Holcim’s cement plant in Siggenthal, Switzerland. Photograph: Beat Schweizer/Meinrad Schade

The claimants argue that Holcim bears a proportionate responsibility for the resulting climate crisis. They are asking for the equivalent of about £3,000 each in compensation for mental harm and as a contribution to managing the climate emergency on the island, such as planting mangroves and building flood defences. This is about 0.42% of the actual costs of damages and adaptation measures.

They also want Holcim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030 and 69% by 2040.

Holcim, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, would not comment directly on the claim. But it said in a statement that it “takes climate action very seriously” and has significantly reduced its CO2 footprint over the last decade.

The company has set science-based decarbonisation targets, including a commitment to reducing its absolute scope 3 emissions by 90% by 2050, compared with 2020. For 2030, it has targets to reduce its CO2 intensity and the amount of CO2 emitted per tonne of cementitious material.

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HEKS/EPER says Holcim is working on reducing its emissions but that “it’s too little, too late”. “If a company has caused damage, it should be held responsible for it,” said Nina Burri, an expert on business and human rights at the NGO and one of the lawyers supporting the islanders’ case.

The case was lodged with a conciliation authority, which is the first step in any civil claim in Switzerland. If they cannot come to an agreement, it can then be filed in a civil court.