A Paris court has been asked to convict the French state for its alleged failure to act to halt the climate crisis.
The historic legal case, being brought by four environmental groups after a petition signed by more than 2 million citizens, seeks to hold the country responsible for ecological damage and its subsequent detrimental health and social effects.
The NGOs also hope the case will trigger greater action to limit the climate breakdown by regarding it as a human right, and say convicting the French would represent an important symbolic victory to force other governments to do more.
The Paris agreement signed in the French capital five years ago aimed to limit global warming to less than 2C (35.6F). Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2017. Environmental experts say governments, including the French administration, have failed to meet their commitments. There is growing anger, particularly among young people mobilised by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
NGOs and climate campaigners are increasingly using the courts to push for change and put pressure on politicians.
In 2019, the Dutch supreme court ordered the Netherlands to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% of 1990 levels by the end of 2020. The case was brought by an NGO.
This latest case in France began in December 2018, when four NGOs lodged a formal complaint to the government of failing to reduce environmentally damaging emissions. This followed an online petition signed by a record-breaking 2.3 million people.
When the organisations Greenpeace France, Notre Affaire à Tous, the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Oxfam France received what they considered an inadequate response they filed a legal complaint in March 2019. The groups are seeking symbolic damages of €1 from the French government.
“We are very hopeful about this hearing and the decision that will follow,” Jean-François Julliard, the director of Greenpeace France, told AFP. He said the organisations were asking the court to recognise that the state was not doing enough.
“The icing on the cake would be a decision to urge the state to do more to put France back on the trajectory of the Paris agreement,” he added.
France pledged to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2030, but the NGOs say the state is exceeding its carbon budgets and is not moving quickly enough to renovate buildings to make them energy efficient, or develop renewable energy. This, they claim, is having a serious impact on the daily quality of life and health of people in France.
In a written defence the French government rejected accusations of inaction and asked the court to throw out any claim for compensation. It argued the state could not be held uniquely responsible for climate change when it was not responsible for all global emissions.
Julliard said bringing the case was a risk for the NGOs. “If we lose, then it will be easy for the state to say: ‘We won in court. Stop your incessant demands’.”
On Thursday morning as the hearing opened at the Paris administrative tribunal, a giant banner reading “We are 2.3 million” was unveiled nearby.
“The climate crisis remains the French people’s biggest worry, even with the health crisis. Even though we saw record high temperatures in 2020, the state is continually delaying its action,” the Nicolas Hulot Foundation said in a statement.
It added that the NGOs “are optimistic that the tribunal will recognise the state’s climate inaction”.
“Finally, we hope the judges will recognise the general obligation of the state to battle climate change … such a decision would be historic and would write into the law books the fact that the fight against climate change is necessary as a protection of fundamental rights.”
Marie Toussaint, a member of the European parliament for Europe Écologie Les Verts and founder of Notre Affaire à Tous, told the newspaper 20 Minutes that winning the case was important as it would make climate protection “a human right and a real obligation” for EU states.
“This hearing is the ‘affair of the century’ and historic because it is the most supported action for climate justice in the world. It’s the result of people’s action,” she said.