In a ruling hailed as historic by environmentalists, a court in Paris convicted the French state of not keeping its promises to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. While the trial won’t have any immediate impact, it creates an important precedent and can have major ramifications down the line.
The court ordered the government to pay a symbolic fine of one euro to the four environmental organizations that brought the case after France exceeded its 2015-2018 carbon budget. As part of their demand, the NGOs had presented 100 testimonies from individuals after collecting more than 25,000 online.
“This is a historic win for climate justice. The 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 courts,” Jean-François Julliard, head of Greenpeace France, one of the plaintiffs, told The Guardian.
In its 38-page decision, the judges acknowledged that there was a link between ecological damage and deficiencies by the French state in following its own climate goals. They held the state responsible for failing to implement public policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, giving the government two months to demonstrate what they are doing to address climate change.
Nevertheless, the judges didn’t support a claim for symbolic compensation, claiming that compensation should be made “in kind” and damages awarded “only if the reparation measures were impossible or insufficient”. However, they ruled the applicants were entitled to seek compensation in kind for the “ecological damage” done by the government.
Cécilia Rinaudo, the director of Notre Affaire à Tous (It’s Everyone’s Business), another plaintiff, said in a statement: “It’s a victory for all the people who are already facing the devastating impact of the climate crisis that our leaders fail to tackle. The time has come for justice. This legal action has brought millions of people together in a common fight: the fight for our future.”
The argument used by the environmental groups was that France exceeded its 2015-18 carbon budget by 4%, failing to deliver its own targets. The country emitted 18 million tons of CO2 equivalent a year more than planned. This was acknowledged by the government, claiming that the country’s climate efforts have “significantly stepped up” since current President Emmanuel Macron took office in 2017.
In its last climate pledge, the French government pledged to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, one of the goals included in the Paris Agreement on climate change. Still, in a report in July, France’s High Council for the Climate severely criticized government policies, claiming “climate action is not up to the challenge.”
The French case is part of a move by climate campaigners across the world to use courts against governments. A report by the UN Environment Program showed that as of July 2020 a total of 1,550 climate change cases had been filed in 38 countries. This includes a 2019 ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court, ordering the Netherlands to cut its emissions by 25% by the end of 2020.