UPDATE: Solidarity demonstrations are happening in London and outside Nottingham Magistrates Court on March 20th, when the first of the 21 activists are due to be sentenced. See here for more information, it would be amazing if you could come and show your support.

One of Britain’s most powerful energy companies is facing acute embarrassment today after it was forced to drop a highly controversial £5m lawsuit against a group of climate change campaigners. The humiliating climb-down by EDF follows an unprecedented backlash in which hundreds of customers deserted the company and 64,000 people signed a Change.org petition posted by one of the activists’ parents.

The record £5m claim against members of No Dash for Gas was described by commentators as “a disgraceful attempt to close down peaceful protest” and “vindictive bullying”, while anti-cuts group UK Uncut and Greenpeace warned that it could change the face of protest in Britain. After three weeks of campaigning and a public outcry, EDF’s lawyers approached the campaigners offering to withdraw the lawsuit before formally surrendering today.

The damages claim related to a week-long protest last October when twenty-one No Dash for Gas activists shut down EDF’s newly-constructed West Burton gas-fired power station. Sixteen of them scaled the smokestacks before abseiling into the flues and living inside them, preventing the scheduled opening the following day of a new chimney, and stopping 20,000 tonnes of CO2 over the course of their seven day occupation (Broadcast quality clipreel of the protest is available for download here).

The campaigners face possible jail terms when they are sentenced for aggravated trespass on Wednesday next week and in April. The additional £5m civil lawsuit would have seen some of them also potentially losing their homes, while all of the campaigners would have been forced to pay a percentage of their earnings to EDF until a personal debt of £238,000 each was paid off, or be declared bankrupt.

One of the No Dash for Gas activists, Hannah Davey, a 35 year-old graphic designer, expressed relief that the lawsuit has been dropped:

“For all their power, for all their access and all their wealth, EDF’s bullying lawsuit has bitten the dust because people power fought back. They thought they were taking on twenty-one of us, but they soon faced a movement that stood with us against an energy giant and its lawyers. This shows how powerful we are if we all stand together, if we organise and mobilise, if we refuse to back down in the face of the climate crisis. Only a few of us went up that chimney, but 64,000 people came down.”

She continued: “This is a huge victory, but sadly it’s not enough by itself. Our homes and financial futures are now safe from EDF’s lawyers but millions of people won’t be safe from fuel poverty and the effects of climate change if the Government and the energy companies’ reckless gas expansion plans are allowed to go ahead. We need to stop the dash for gas before it crashes our carbon targets and makes the UK dependent on an expensive, imported and highly-polluting fuel for decades to come.”

The lawsuit was raised in Parliament, while one of Britain¹s leading authorities on corporate sustainability and reputation – Brendan May of the Robertsbridge Group – warned EDF that its legal strategy risked “reputational suicide”. Supporters of the petition demanding EDF withdraw the suit included Richard Dawkins, Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. A new website was set up by supporters of the activists, helping EDF customers to easily switch away from the company to a greener provider. Hundreds of EDF customers have already taken to social media to say they¹ve left the company.

Danielle Paffard, 26, works for a credit union and is another No Dash for Gas campaigner celebrating victory over EDF. She said: “EDF has sustained an unmitigated defeat. A domineering company with an appalling record of pollution was trying to break the climate movement with a lawsuit they thought would silence opposition, but they failed. Our campaign to expose the lie behind the new dash for gas will continue, with a growing movement and new allies. Offshore wind power is on track to be cheaper than gas by the end of this decade. Along with other renewables and energy efficiency, we can keep the lights on, slash pollution and bring down bills, but not with George Osborne¹s forty new gas plants.”

Though EDF have dropped the damages claim, they have still insisted on a restrictive injunction preventing the 21 activists from entering EDF power stations in the future. Focus now shifts to Nottingham Magistrates Court, where seventeen of the activists will be sentenced on Wednesday 20th March at 10am. If they receive custodial sentences ­ which they’ve been told is a real possibility ­ they will be the first activists from the climate movement to be jailed in the UK. A further four campaigners will be sentenced a fortnight later on 2nd April.