Protests against the fossil fuels industry in Europe are becoming more assertive and more frequent, as the appetite for a "fair" energy transition grows. Diana Diaz-Valdes Teran examines some of the protest risks increasingly affecting the sector, including legal action, shareholder activism, and infrastructure sabotage.
On 23 May, a group of around 100 climate activists broke into a British energy conglomerate's annual shareholder meeting in London and attempted to climb onto the stage, prompting security personnel to form a human chain to protect the company's leaders and disrupting the event for nearly two hours. The activists represented various climate groups including Money Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion, Christian Climate Action, Fossil Free London, and Stop Ecocide. The action was partly broadcast on social media where Fossil Free London, an activist group claiming to have co-ordinated the protest, posted a Tweet calling on the board to shut down the company, threatening that, "If they don't, an avalanche of protest will do it for them."
That same week, on 26 May, Climate activists from 350.org, Friends of the Earth France, and Scientists in Rebellion attempted to stop a French energy conglomerate's shareholder meeting in Paris by forming a human chain around the premises. Police responded with tear gas to break up the protest.
Both incidents demonstrate the adopted tactics of activist groups seeking to effect radical change in the fossil fuels industry by aggressively targeting some of its key players, and by amplifying discussions around the impact of the industry on the environment. As the appetite for a "fair" energy transition grows in Europe, the fossil fuels industry is likely to encounter an increasingly belligerent opposition from climate activist groups resulting in enhanced risks of legal action and sabotage, and significant damage to their social license to operate.
Growing urgency for action
Climate activism has manifested in a variety of guises. Peaceful human chains, and walking or standing demonstrations have been a traditional means of protest for decades, causing disruptions and (ideally) garnering media headlines intended to pressure companies to change course. But as the urgency of resolving the climate crisis grows – not least in the wake of the "final" warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels â€“ more confrontational measures may become increasingly common.
As the appetite for a 'fair' energy transition grows in Europe, the fossil fuels industry is likely to encounter an increasingly belligerent opposition from climate activist groups."
Notably, some prominent climate-focused organisations have orchestrated legal actions with the backing of institutional investors. Cases such as this have challenged energy companies' failures to manage the material and foreseeable risks of their industry on climate change, and have received the backing of investors in the companies themselves, as well as outside financiers who see an opportunity to make gains from potential punitive awards. Lawsuits of this nature not only carry risks associated with the legal action itself, but also reputational risks that may be exacerbated by the backing of non-activist investors. Legal action may in fact become an increasingly attractive route for climate activists, as robust regulation in the ESG space continues to advance in Europe, providing stricter rules and standards around green washing and carbon offsetting.
Similarly, shareholder activism has also experienced a surge in recent years, as many see this as the most efficient strategy to take control of a company's agenda as well as placing key individuals on the company's board. In the US, for example, there was a 36 percent increase in shareholder activist campaigns compared to 2021. Many of the recent campaigns have been centred on ESG issues and have targeted a range of companies in different sectors. Particularly where activists can demonstrate a clear economic rationale to their campaign "for example of the longer-term gains from renewable energy investments" they are likely to be more successful than those driven more firmly by ideological positioning.
From disruption to destruction
For some groups and individuals “within what is a diverse climate activism movement" demonstrations and courtroom manoeuvrings do not go far enough. Recent years have seen a growing push among some climate activists calling for the destruction of pipelines and other forms of infrastructure as a form of humanitarian intervention. They argue that however disruptive their actions may be, the unchecked effects of climate change will be far worse.
The effectiveness of these more radical tactics, as well as how these are perceived by the broader public, will remain a matter of debate. But in the meantime, confrontational and sometimes violent approaches are likely to increasingly form part of the mix of tactics used by climate activists. While not all climate activists will accept violence, the sabotage of construction sites for new pipelines and petrol pumps in the UK; the barricading of an abandoned village to prevent the expansion of an open-pit lignite mine in Germany; and the emergence of climate activist group Les Soulèvements de la Terre in France, which have reportedly carried out 18 acts of sabotage between 2021 and March 2023, indicate there is a continued will as well as a significant number of sympathisers of this approach across Europe.
The public opinion
Many factors drive the public opinion on fossil fuels and the energy transition, and in different geographies some factors may carry more weight than others. According to Eurobarometer, a poll on the perception of fairness of the green transition in the EU found that while 88 percent of EU citizens supported a "fair" green transition, only 46 percent of Europeans were confident that by 2050 sustainable energy, products and services would be affordable for everyone. As such, the issue of affordability and accessibility appears to be a key driver of opinion in the EU.
Notwithstanding this, unforeseeable events of significant magnitude may also influence how the wider public perceives the urgency or need of embarking on an energy transition away from fossil fuels. For example, Eurobarometer polling has also found that the war in Ukraine has created an incentive for European states to move away from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. According to the poll, 83 percent of respondents thought that the war in Ukraine made it more urgent for EU member states to invest in renewable energy.
But when it comes to protest action, especially of a destructive or violent nature, opinion is more divided. For instance, a 2023 YouGov poll showed that 60 percent of UK respondents wanted the defacing of art or public monuments to be made a criminal offence.
Whether met with empathy, apathy or animosity by the public, climate activist groups have nonetheless driven public opinion by spearheading the discussion around fossil fuels, utilising social media, and often adopting drastic performative protests, fuelling the discussions further and heightening their importance. Indeed, the more radical actions may have the effect of rendering the demands of mainstream activists more acceptable – both in the eyes of the public, but also of governments facing growing pressure to create working legislative frameworks to solve the climate crisis. As the urgency around climate action escalates, actors within the fossil fuels industry will need to carefully consider their approaches to the energy transition, and evaluate both the risks and opportunities it presents.