French state liable for climate inaction, court rules

·3-min read
2018 file photo; A French court on February 3, 2021, held the state responsible for its alleged failure to act to halt climate change, handing NGOs victory in a case backed by over two million citizens.

A French court on Wednesday held the state responsible for its failure to take sufficient measures to halt climate change, a first in the country hailed as a victory by NGOs who brought the case with the backing of over two million citizens.

The administrative court in Paris ruled that the government's failure to convert its commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions into policy made it "responsible... for some of the ecological damage seen."

It ordered the payment of a symbolic one euro in damages to the four NGOs behind the complaint.

The four NGOs behind the case said in a joint statement that it was the first time that the French state had been "found at fault in the fight against climate change."

While the damages are symbolic, the four groups, which include the French branches of Greenpeace and Oxfam, said it had set an important legal precedent.

"All direct victims of climate change in France will now be able to turn to justice and rely on this judgement to seek compensation for the damage they suffer," they said.

"The state will finally have to shoulder the consequences of decades of inaction on the climate."

- 'Case of the century' -

The judges said however they would wait two months before deciding whether it was necessary to force President Emmanuel Macron's government to take steps on greening the economy.

Oxfam France in a tweet hailed the ruling as a "historic victory for the climate".

"The state's climate action has been recognised as ILLEGAL," it added.

Reacting to the ruling, France's environment ministry said it had "taken note" of the verdict and said it was "fully committed to meet the climate challenge".

Oxfam France, Greenpeace France and the other groups accused the government of failing to keep Macron's stated 2017 promise to "make our planet great again".

A petition they launched garnered over 2.3 million signatures.

Their case, which they called "the case of the century", is part of a mounting push by climate campaigners across the world to use courts to pressure governments into action.

In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the Netherlands to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020 after a case brought by an NGO.

- 'We won!' -

A host of celebrities became involved in the French campaign, including actors Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard, who welcomed the court ruling in a video Wednesday, shouting "We won!"

An international accord signed in Paris five years ago aims to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, and preferably to 1.5 degrees.

But experts say governments are far from meeting their commitments and anger is growing among younger generations over inaction, symbolised by the campaigns of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.

France has committed to reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030 compared with 1990.

But in a report last year, the High Council on Climate, which advises the government, said it was far off target.

In court the government defended its record, saying that an energy bill adopted in 2019 would speed progress on reducing emissions.

In a separate but similar case in November, France's top administrative court gave the government a three-month deadline to show it was taking action on global warming.

That case was brought by Grande-Synthe, a low-lying northern coastal town that is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change.