French state loses landmark lawsuit over climate inaction

"As far as the commitments it had made and failed to meet under the first carbon budget, the state must be held responsible [...] for part of the ecological damage," the judgment states. EPA-EFE/YOAN VALAT [EPA-EFE/YOAN VALAT]

The Paris administrative court recognised on Wednesday (3 February) the “faulty but partial shortcomings” of the French state in the fight against global warming in what has been termed “the case of the century”. EURACTIV France reports.

In an eagerly awaited decision, the Paris administrative court handed down its ruling in “France’s first major climate trial” as it was described by the public rapporteur on 14 January when the hearings opened.

In their ruling delivered on Wednesday, the French judges recognised the state’s “culpable failings” in the fight against global warming, backing the complaint filed by the four environmental groups: Notre Affaire à tous, Fondation Nicolas Hulot, Greenpeace, and Oxfam.

According to the four environmental NGOs who were suing the State for “climate inaction”, this is a “historic victory”.

The judges have now given themselves two months to decide whether or not they will order the government to take action to protect the climate.

French court gives government three months to prove effective climate policy

France’s highest legal body ruled on Thursday (19 November) that the government has three months to explain its “greenhouse gas emission reduction path”. EURACTIV France reports.

Partially responsible

Based on numerous reports and studies that left little doubt on the subject, the Paris court highlighted the “significant damage to the elements and functions of ecosystems” as defined in the civil code.

But while the state’s failure to act is indisputable, the court only partially acknowledged its responsibility for the climate crisis.

“As far as the commitments it had made and failed to meet under the first carbon budget, the state must be held responsible […] for part of the ecological damage,” the judgment states.

The same goes for improving energy efficiency or renewable energies. In both cases, the court stated that “if the investigation thus shows that the objectives set by the state have not been achieved either, the gap between objectives and achievements […] cannot be regarded as having contributed directly to the worsening of the ecological damage for which the applicant associations are seeking compensation”.

While NGOs expressed overwhelming enthusiasm after the trial, largely reinforced by messages and videos posted on social networks, many observers were more circumspect.

This was the case for environmental lawyer Arnaud Gossement, who found it “difficult to be happy with a judgment that only admits a fairly minor fault on the part of the state”, namely on the carbon budget alone.

According to Gossement, the “final decisions” must be delivered before a final assessment can be made.

“The case of the century is not over,” he added.

A case to follow

In addition to recognising a partial failure of the state to act, the court issued a “supplementary instruction”.

The judges thus gave themselves two months before deciding whether or not to instruct the government to take additional measures to combat global warming, and gave the government time to submit observations “from the relevant ministries to all parties”. On this point, the court followed the public rapporteur’s recommendations made at the first hearing on 14 January.

In addition, the court also ordered the state to pay a symbolic one euro to each of the four associations “as compensation for their non-material damage”.

More than a “historic victory”, this ruling is more like a first step towards climate justice. As the future climate law should be presented to the Council of Ministers on 10 February, the applicant NGOs hope that “justice will not be limited to acknowledging the state’s fault, but will also force it to finally take concrete measures to at least respect its climate commitments”.

Macron and the citizens' convention divided on climate issues

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with members of the Citizens’ Climate Convention on Monday (14 December). Although his announcement of a potential referendum on climate and environment made a lot of noise, the heated debate revealed continuing tensions between citizens and the executive. EURACTIV France reports.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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