A Dutch court has ordered Shell to significantly deepen its planned greenhouse gas emission cuts, in a landmark ruling that could pave the way for legal action against energy companies around the world.

At a court hearing held on Wednesday in The Hague, Judge Larisa Alwin ordered Shell to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 45% by 2030, as measured against 2019 levels.

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"The court orders Royal Dutch Shell, by means of its corporate policy, to reduce its C02 emissions by 45% by 2030 with respect to the level of 2019 for the Shell group and the suppliers and customers of the group," Judge Alwin said.

Shell's climate policy 'not enough'

Shell currently has a target to reduce the carbon intensity of its products by at least 6% by 2023, by 20% by 2030, by 45% by 2035 and by 100% by 2050 compared with 2016 levels.

But the court said Shell's climate policy is "not concrete and is full of conditions...that's not enough."

"The conclusion of the court is therefore that Shell is in danger of violating its obligation to reduce. And the court will therefore issue an order upon (Royal Dutch Shell)," the judge said.

The court ordered Shell to reduce its absolute levels of carbon emissions in contrast to Shell's intensity-based targets, which could allow the company to grow its output in theory.

Key win for greens

The lawsuit, which was filed by seven groups including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, marks a first in which environmentalists have turned to the courts to try to force a major energy company to alter its strategy.

It was filed in April 2019 on behalf of more than 17,000 Dutch citizens who say Shell is threatening human rights as it continues to invest billions in the production of fossil fuels.

"This is a huge win, for us and for anyone affected by climate change", Friends of the Earth Netherlands director Donald Pols told Reuters.

"It is historic, it is the first time a court has decided that a major polluter has to cut its emissions," Pols added after the verdict, which Shell can appeal.

Shell has said its carbon emissions reached a peak in 2018 and that its oil output peaked in 2019 and is now set to decline by 1% to 2% per year.

However, the Anglo-Dutch company's spending will remain tilted towards oil and gas for the immediate future.

A rapid reduction would effectively force the firm to quickly move away from oil and gas.

Shell, which plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, said ahead of the ruling that court action will not be able to accelerate the world's transition away from fossil fuels.