Campaigners claim ‘historic win’ as France found guilty of climate inaction

Today the Paris administrative court concluded France has failed to do enough to meet its own commitments on the climate crisis and is legally responsible for the ensuing ecological damage.

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The French state has been found guilty of climate inaction in what campaigners have dubbed “the case of the century”. 

Today the Paris administrative court concluded France has failed to do enough to meet its own commitments on the climate crisis and is legally responsible for the ensuing ecological damage.

France is the third European country where legal action by campaigners has highlighted significant failings in state action on climate change and forced politicians to act, after the landmark Urgenda case in the Netherlands in 2019 and the Irish Supreme Court’s decision in the national Climate Case last year. 

‘Historic win’

Jean-François Julliard, Executive Director of Greenpeace France—one of the four NGOs bringing the case—described the ruling as a “historic win for climate justice”. 

“This decision not only takes into consideration what scientists say and what people want from French public policies, but it should also inspire people all over the world to hold their governments accountable for climate change in their own courts,” she said.

“For governments the writing is on the wall: climate justice doesn’t care about speeches and empty promises, but about facts.”

LAffaire du Siècle (case of the century), as it was described by NGOs was brought by Greenpeace France, together with Oxfam France, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Notre Affaire à Tous, in December 2018.

The groups filed a legal complaint, saying France was not on track to meet its then target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, its minimum commitment as an EU member. Since then, this target has been raised to 55 percent for all EU member states, but it is not yet clear how President Emmanuel Macron will deliver this given France’s track record on cutting emissions.

France’s own High Council on Climate has analysed the country’s progress and found it lacking, with emissions substantially exceeding the first two carbon budgets. France had pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 percent each year, but they fell by only 0.9 percent from 2018 to 2019. The Climate Change Performance Index also shows France’s climate progress slowing, with limited advances in increasing the share of renewables and in de-carbonizing transport. 

The court judgment ruled that: “Consequently, the state must be regarded as having ignored the first carbon budget and did not carry out the actions that it itself had recognized as being necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

‘Moral damages’

The court said it would not be appropriate to fine the government in this case but would publish measures to fix the problem in two months’ time.

Instead of fines, the French government was ordered to pay one symbolic Euro to each of the four NGOs that brought the case for compensation of “moral damages”—essentially harm to their reputation. 

Each of these organizations have worked for years to address global warming through campaigning and advocacy, the judgment noted, and “the faulty shortcomings of the state” in respecting this work “have damaged the collective interests” they defend. 

Greenpeace notes that the recognition of ecological damage against a public body in the administrative courts marks a significant moment for environmental law in France.

The organizations had gathered more than 2.3 million signatures from the public since demanding more urgent action on climate change in 2018. 

The public rapporteur Amélie Fort-Besnard—an independent magistrate who analyses existing legislation to guide the court’s decision—described the case as France’s “first major climate trial”, although the French coastal town Grande-Synthe has also taken the government to court for failing to comply with the Paris Agreement.

Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, said climate litigation cases take time “but they force governments to increase climate action through a court order”.

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