Technology & Science

Court rules France failed to respect its climate change goal

A Paris court has ruled that the French state failed to take sufficient action to fight climate change in a case brought by a group of non-governmental organizations.

NGOs said the decision could ramp up pressure on other countries to act on global warming

A court ruled Wednesday that France's government must do more to fight climate change. (Michel Euler/The Canadian Press)

A court on Wednesday ruled that the French state failed to take sufficient action to fight climate change in a case brought by four non-governmental organizations. 

The NGOs cheered the decision as "historic" for their country and a boon to those elsewhere using the law to push their governments in the fight against global warming.

The four organizations are Greenpeace France, Oxfam France, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Notre Affaire a Tous [Our Shared Responsibility].

In its ruling, the Paris administrative court recognized ecological "deficiencies" linked to climate change and held the French state responsible for failing to fully meet its goals in reducing greenhouse gases.

The government said in a statement that it "took note" of the decision, and provided a list of actions in the pipeline to "allow France to respect in the future the objectives it set." 

"The government remains fully engaged to take up the climate challenge and leave no one on the side of the road in this indispensable transition," the statement, which was signed by Barbara Pompili, the minister for ecological transition, went on.

France missing Paris Agreement targets

President Emmanuel Macron, who has been very vocal about his support for climate change action, pushed in December for beefing up the European Union's 2030 targets to reduce greenhouse gases by at least 55 per cent compared with 1990 levels — up from the previous 40 per cent target.

But Oxfam France, Greenpeace France and two other organizations contended that Macron's lobbying for global climate action is not backed up by sufficient domestic measures to curb emissions blamed for global warming.

France is missing its national targets that had been set under the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb climate change, and the country has delayed most of its efforts until after 2020.

The court ruled in a 38-page decision that there was a link between ecological damage and deficiencies by the state in respecting its own goals.

It decided that awarding money wasn't appropriate in this case. Instead, reparations should centre on fixing the failure to respect goals for lowering greenhouse gases. 

The court gave itself two months to study measures to repair the problem and stop it from getting worse.

It did, however, ask the French state to pay each of the four organizations that brought the action a symbolic euro each, a common practice in France.

The court ruled in a 38-page decision that there was a link between ecological damage and deficiencies by France in respecting its own goals. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

The four NGOs that brought the case called the decision "a first historic victory for the climate" as well as a "victory for truth," saying that until now France has denied the "insufficiency of its climate policies."

The decision "shows the state has a special responsibility in the climate fight ... Emmanuel Macron, more than other heads of state, spoke out strongly on the subject. Today, he cannot remain silent," Greenpeace France chief Jean-Francois Julliard said at a news conference. 

The decision "goes beyond French borders," he noted, because it can help those fighting such battles in other countries.

'It's bizarre that you don't achieve your goals'

The French NGOs got advice from colleagues in the Netherlands where the Dutch Supreme Court upheld a judgment for the Urgenda environmental group that ordered the government to cut emissions by at least 25 per cent by the end of 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

The government responded with a package of measures that included shutting or reducing capacity at coal-fired power stations and subsidizing moves to promote sustainable energy. 

Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it's not yet clear if the Dutch government achieved the emissions reduction mandated by the court, but that the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus helped and they may be "nearly there." Minnesma said she is "super happy" with the French case.

"Fantastic, because it is a big country and if you have the Paris accord to your name, then it's bizarre that you don't achieve your goals," she said.

Former lawmaker and minister Cécile Duflot, now head of Oxfam France, said Wednesday's decision will be especially good news "for children born today who will live through catastrophic weather reports."

The judgment explains "not only how the state did not keep its commitments, it explains the gravity of climate change ... and that things can be done otherwise," she said, underscoring the sweep of the ruling.

"It is the first big climate trial [in France] and it has been won."

The NGOs hailed the more than 2.3 million people who signed a petition launched in 2018 to support the court action, saying that the victory was theirs too.

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