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French litigation shows increase in climate action accountability

Out-Law News | 16 Feb 2021 | 10:22 am | 2 min. read

A recent ruling in Paris highlights how the commitments made by governments and businesses to combat climate change are coming under increased scrutiny before the courts, an expert in corporate litigation has said.

Earlier this month, the administrative court in Paris ruled that the actions the French government is taking were insufficient to meet its own targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It held that that this "culpable failure" contributes to environmental damage, according to a statement issued by Oxfam France – one of the groups behind the legal action.

According to Oxfam, the judgment "leaves the government open to compensation claims from French citizens who have suffered climate-related damage". The court has, at this stage, reserved judgment on whether to require the French government to take further steps to meet its climate targets.

Michael Fenn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said: "This case is part of a growing trend of activist litigation in which non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and similar use the courts to hold states to their climate change commitments. For example, similar court decisions upholding claims against governments in relation to their climate change mitigation activities have been given in the Netherlands and Ireland, and an action against Belgium by non-profit group Climate Case is due to be heard next month. This type of litigation is expected to grow, globally, in the coming months and years."

"In this case, in monetary terms the court has so far only awarded symbolic compensation of €1. However, the court’s order that the French government must provide further information within two months about the measures it is taking to address climate change, so that the court can decide whether to order the government to take stronger measures, shows the potential power of litigation to drive change," he said.

More than 2.3 million people had signed a petition supporting the legal action in France.

Cécile Duflot, executive director of Oxfam France, said: "For the first time, a French court has ruled that the State can be held responsible for its climate commitments. This sets an important legal precedent and can be used by people affected by the climate crisis to defend their rights. This is a source of hope for the millions of French people who demanded legal action, and for all of those who continue to fight for climate justice around the world. It is also a timely reminder to all governments that actions speak louder than words."

Paris-based Valentine Morand of Pinsent Masons said: "These are busy times for climate activists in French courts. In the direct aftermath of the decision from the Conseil d’Etat last November, the French state now faces liability for failure to meet its own objectives with regard to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, in both cases, much remains to be seen as courts requested additional time to collect and examine data as well as governmental commitments before potentially rendering injunctions meant to force the state’s hand in the fight against climate change."

"It is certainly not by chance that the French government has meanwhile proposed to include in the Constitution that France 'guarantees the preservation of the environment and biological diversity and combats climate change', and will likely resort to a referendum," she said.

Last autumn, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced a revised emissions reduction target of "at least 55%" of 1990 levels for the EU, up from the previous 40% reduction target.