If we don’t make our issue heard, we will die.
An emerald pool of water sits within the white glacial peaks of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca. Despite its majestic appearance, the lake could be a ticking time bomb for the people of Huaraz in Peru.
This city of 120,000 inhabitants is now the centre of a landmark legal battle taking place between a local farmer and the global energy giant RWE.
Lake Palcacocha has swollen in volume by 34 times since the 1970s as a result of melting ice water from the glaciers above. Many fear the city’s flood defences, which consist of a series of flood pipes, are inadequate.
Global heating could cause flooding, which in turn could trigger a deadly landslide, warned a study in Nature Geoscience published last year.
This threat is not unprecedented. In 1941, a chunk of ice fell into the lake during an earthquake, causing a flood which killed as many as 1,800 people.
Saúl Luciano Lliuya, backed by the NGO German Watch, has filed a lawsuit against the energy company RWE to force the company to pay for some of the costs of preventing damage from a potential outburst flood.
The company is one of Europe’s biggest historical emitters of greenhouse gases, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of Climate Change.
Journalist Olivia Acland interviewed Luciano Lliuya in his house on the Northern outskirts of Huaraz. This was part of an investigation for SourceMaterial, a not-for-profit investigative journalism organisation.
“Saúl works as a farmer and during the high season, he also works as a mountain guide for tourists,” she told The Ecologist. “Over his lifetime he has seen the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca recede a lot.
"He told me how frustrated he was as Peru is less developed than other parts of the world, including Europe, and has less resources with which to battle climate change, yet it is suffering as a result of the greenhouse gases emitted in richer, more developed countries.
"RWE was responsible for around 0.5 percent of the world's CO2 and methane emissions between 1750 and 2010", she said, citing a 2014 report on carbon majors by the Climate Accountability Institute. “[This] is why it would make sense for them to pay 0.5 percent towards the city's flood defences, which amounts to around nearly £17,000,” she adds.
RWE fiercely disputes any responsibility for the melting glacier and considers the claim unfounded. An RWE spokesperson said in an interview on German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It would be impossible to demonstrate that the carbon emissions generated by a company such as RWE are contributing to the situation on the other side of the world.”
If we don’t make our issue heard, we will die.
So far, both sides have spent far more on legal fees and ‘independent’ studies than the money which Luciano Lliuya had asked for to contribute towards the city’s flood defences, demonstrating the global significance of the case – which now rests on a tipping point, held together by climate science and how it holds up in court.
If the case is successful, its ripples will be felt across the climate movement. “This is not just a local problem,” Lliuya told Deutsche Welle. “It’s an issue with global relevance. If we don’t make our issue heard, we will die.”
While driving through Huaraz, Acland had asked Luciano Lliuya how he was finding everything, he told her that really, he’d like to go back to his fields.
If he succeeds, the future of climate action could be reshaped forever, meaning energy companies could, at last, be held responsible for the devastation caused by an increasingly warming world.
Right to reply
A spokesperson for RWE told The Ecologist: "Mr Luciano Lliuya’s claim was rejected in the first instance because it has no legal basis and does not comply with German civil law.
"Innumerable sources around the globe have emitted greenhouse gases or contributed in other ways to climate change. The climate is an extremely complex matter and it is judicially impossible to attribute to individual consequences of climate change to a single person or company.
"This case is about whether or not Mr Lliuya’s very specific allegations, whereby RWE through its historic emissions are responsible for 0.47 percent of the alleged risk for his house, can be proven by the claimant.
"We have always been operating our plants in compliance with governmental permits. These permits include our CO2 emissions. In addition, RWE‘s CO2 emissions are subject to the European Emissions Trading Scheme. RWE's strategy is in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement."
Yasmin Dahnoun is the assistant editor of The Ecologist. She tweets as @dahnoun_