Effects of climate change on Peru’s glaciers debated in German court

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Huaraz (Peru) (AFP) – German judges and experts have arrived at the edge of a high melting glacier in the Peruvian Andes to examine a complaint made by a local farmer who accused energy giant RWE of threatening his home by contributing to global warming.

The nine-member delegation’s visit to the region is the latest stage in a case the plaintiffs hope will set a new precedent worldwide.

Leading the demand for “climate justice” is 41-year-old Peruvian farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya, who lives in the mountains near the city of Huaraz.

He has filed a lawsuit against German company RWE, saying greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the melting of a nearby glacier.

The trip was ordered by the Regional High Court in the northern German city of Hamm, where Lliuya has filed his complaint against RWE, having previously been dismissed by another court in Essen.

The delegation had to determine what risks the melting glaciers pose to the city of Huaraz and its 120,000 residents under the Palcacocha glacier.

“We want the RWE company to take responsibility for the environmental damage,” Lliuya, a farmer and tour guide supported by German environmental NGO Germanwatch, told AFP.

“In general they have polluted the whole world and with this claim we are trying to do something,” added Lliuya.

RWE operates in 27 countries around the world, including Chile and Brazil, but not Peru.

Lake Palcacocha at 4,650 meters above sea level risks flooding the city of Huaraz below if melting glacier water overflows GONZALES AFP

The claim was “rejected at the first instance because it has no legal basis and does not respect German civil law,” RWE spokesman Guido Steffen told AFP.

“We believe this will happen again with an appeal.”

RWE insists that “by law, individual emitters are not responsible for universal, effectively global processes, such as climate change.”

Lliuya and Germanwatch met during the COP20 climate change conference in Lima in 2014, after which German NGO activists traveled to Huaraz to discuss possible claims in Germany.

Feeling ‘helpless’

Lliuya says his biggest fear is that melting glaciers are causing Lake Palcacocha to overflow.

At 4,650 meters (15,000 ft), the large turquoise lake sits beneath the Palcaraju and Pucaranra glaciers in Huascaran national park, and can flood Huaraz below if it overflows.

“As a farmer and a resident, I don’t want this glacier to disappear, that’s important,” said Lliuya.

But he said he felt “helpless” because “you know you’re in a risk zone and there are businesses and industries that cause this.”

Lliuya has half a hectare of “chacra” — the Quechua word for small farmland — on the mountainside.

Climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from private companies and industry is responsible for melting glaciers, activists say
Climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions from private companies and industry is responsible for melting glaciers, activists say GONZALES AFP

He owns chickens and sheep and grows corn and quinoa.

Lliuya lives a simple life with his wife and two children. Their kitchen has several utensils and a wide tree trunk that doubles as a dining table.

He also fears a drought in the underground aquifer could threaten local agriculture and Huaraz’ water supplies.

Battle at the German court

The case against RWE was filed in 2015 and the German company won in first instance the following year. But in 2017, a court in Hamm agreed to try the case.

Expert visits ordered in 2019 were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saul Luciano Lliuya (left), his son Brandon (center) and wife Lidia live in a simple house with a tree trunk for a dining table
Saul Luciano Lliuya (left), his son Brandon (center) and wife Lidia live in a simple house with a tree trunk for a dining table GONZALES AFP

Germanwatch and Lliuya want RWE to pay the costs to protect Huaraz from flooding.

“This case draws on our historic greenhouse gas emissions, and we have always complied with government limits, including our carbon dioxide emissions,” said RWE, which has stated a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Peru has lost 51 percent of its glaciers over the past 50 years, the national water authority said in 2020.

Noah Walker-Crawford, a climate change researcher at University College London (UCL) and Germanwatch analyst, told AFP that 1,800 people died in 1941 when Palcacocha flooded Huaraz due to a glacial avalanche.

UCL researcher Noah Walker-Crawford (left) says disasters have hit Huaraz before due to glacier avalanches
UCL researcher Noah Walker-Crawford (left) says disasters have hit Huaraz before due to glacier avalanches GONZALES AFP

Since then, Palcacocha’s volume has fallen 96 percent over three decades.

“But then, because of the rapid glacier recession caused by global warming, the lake expanded rapidly,” Walker-Crawford said.

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