French state faces landmark lawsuit over climate inaction

Nicolas Tucat, AFP | "There is no planet B", says this protester during a march against climate change in Bordeaux, southwestern France, on October 13, 2018.

NGOs have filed a lawsuit against the French state for doing too little to fight climate change as citizens around the world step up their efforts to force stronger moves to cut carbon emissions.


When French President Emmanuel Macron showed up for a town hall meeting last week in the picturesque provençal town of Gréoux-les-Bains, part of a Great National Debate that has seen him engage with local communities across the country, the star guest from Paris was upstaged by a local schoolboy who, mic in hand, urged him to get serious about saving the planet.

“What do you mean by ecology, since our factories are free to discard their waste at sea, pesticides pollute our soils and thus our food, Europe sends 20,000 tonnes of junked electrical equipment to Nigeria, and plastic rubbish invades our oceans and our planet?” asked the plucky 14-year-old, who went by the name of Charlie.

“When are you going to react? You have the power to,” the youngster added. “Or do you think money will buy us a new planet?”

As video footage of the tirade went viral, the young Charlie was soon described as the “French Greta Thunberg”, after the Swedish schoolgirl whose weekly "school strike for climate" in front of Stockholm’s Parliament House has won a global following, inspiring student protests and strikes in cities across the globe.

>> Read more: The Swedish teen holding world leaders accountable for climate change

Marie-Anne Cohendet, a professor of constitutional and environmental law at Paris 1-Sorbonne University, said the French pupil was right to call out the head of state on the issue of climate change.

“It might sound naive, since the state cannot alone fight climate change,” she told FRANCE 24. “But it can do a lot. In fact it has a duty to,” she added, noting that the French state is obliged to uphold the constitutional rights of its citizens, which include “access to a healthy and viable environment”.

Global protests

With 2018 registering as France’s hottest year on record, and recent studies showing that pollution kills as many as 48,000 people each year, the evidence suggests French citizens’ access to a healthy and viable environment is being jeopardized by the greenhouse gas emissions that continue to fuel global warming.

The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that we have only a dozen years in which to limit global warming by a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that, even half a degree or warming will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Growing awareness of the impending catastrophe has triggered protests across the globe as groups and individuals press their governments to take more urgent action. On Friday, French students will join youths around the world in skipping school to demonstrate against climate change. More than 140 NGOs have called for further protests the next day in cities across France.

Some pressure groups are opting for legal means to force greater action.

On Thursday, four French NGOs Notre affaire à tous, la Fondation pour la nature et l'homme, Greenpeace France and Oxfam France – filed a lawsuit at the Paris administrative court against the French government, accusing it of failing to act upon its environmental obligations. A petition accompanying their initiative, called ‘L’Affaire du siècle’ or the case of the century, has collected a record 2.1 million signatures.

From words to actions

France played a key part in engineering an agreement at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, but it has consistently fallen short of its environmental commitments since then.

Macron’s own green credentials took a hit last summer when his star environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, quit the government in protest at the lack of progress. Months later, he was forced into an embarrassing U-turn on anti-pollution fuel tax hikes in the face of country-wide "Yellow Vest" protests.

“We want the French state’s commitments and stated ambitions to be translated into concrete action,” said Noelie Coudurier, who heads Oxfam France’s climate section. “And in order to enforce this, we need the courts to recognise the state’s responsibility in failing to meet its targets,” she told FRANCE 24.

>> Read more: After 'Yellow Vests', climate crusaders challenge Macron's government

The Paris agreement called for capping global warming at "well below" two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but the planet is currently on track to heat up by at least four degrees C.In an electro-shock report published in October, the UN's climate science panel (IPCC) said only a wholesale transformation of the global economy and consumer habits could forestall climate catastrophe.

“Our entire economic model is in need of an overhaul,” said Coudurier. “It is up to the state to come up with a binding framework to achieve this.”

‘Urgenda target’

The French NGOs are basing their legal action on a series of binding agreements, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the 2004 Environmental Charter, as well as non-binding texts, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

But it’s the legal precedents set outside France that have given activists reason to hope.

In October, the Dutch government lost an appeal against a ruling which ordered it to slash greenhouse gases by at least 25 percent by 2020. Environmental rights group Urgenda fought the successful case on behalf of some 900 Dutch citizens who accused the Netherlands, one of Europe’s worst polluters, of doing too little to prevent dangerous climate change.

Since then the Dutch government has been scrambling to cut emissions. This week alone, it announced a carbon tax on big corporations and ordered Swedish utility Vattenfall to close a recently revamped coal-fired plant as part of efforts to meet the so-called “Urgenda target”.

Further cases are under way across the globe, including in the US, where a lawsuit filed by 21 teenagers in Oregon – known as the Juliana case – recently saw off an attempt by the Trump administration to halt it.

Last year, an appeals court in Colombia ruled that the country’s government, from the president to local municipalities, must create and implement plans within five months to stop deforestation in the Amazon. And in 2015, a court in Pakistan ordered the formation of Climate Change Commission after a local farmer filed a petition claiming that the government was violating his fundamental rights by neglecting to tackle the impacts of global warming.

A symbolic precedent

According to Marta Torre-Schaub, a Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who teaches environmental law at Paris 1-Sorbonne university, the French lawsuit is unlikely to find similar success in court.

“It is not up to administrative courts to set specific objectives for the state,” she explained, noting that the “case of the century” is, in legal terms, as ambitious as it is vague.

However, the expert in climate litigation said the high-profile nature of the case could help “shift positions” on climate change and raise awareness of the scope for more focused legal action.

While France’s Environment Minister François de Rugy has said that “greenhouse gases will not be reduced in a court of law", Torre-Schaub argues that judges have a large role to play on the frontlines of climate action.

“Under French law, we already have the instruments required to enforce climate action,” she told FRANCE 24. “And if the administration fails to meet its obligations, then French citizens are perfectly right to go to court.”


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