A historic legal victory for climate justice in France

Armelle Le Comte Climate Change, Influencing

On February 3rd 2021 in Paris, a landmark ruling found the French at fault for failing to take enough action to tackle the climate crisis. Two years after the launch of the “Case of the Century” by four NGOs including Oxfam France, this decision should serve as a warning to other governments to keep in line with their public commitments and do more to tackle climate change. A second ruling is expected by the summer in which the court could compel the French Government to take further steps to reduce emissions.

The “Case of the Century”: the first legal action on climate change in France

In December 2018, Oxfam France with three other French NGOs – Notre Affaire à Tous, The Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Greenpeace France launched legal action against the French State for failing to reduce the country’s emissions fast enough to meet its commitments. The public support was overwhelming. In just a few weeks, more than 2.3 million people signed the petition supporting the action – the largest in French history, on any issue. A reminder that French citizens are very concerned about the environment in general, and the impacts of climate change in particular.

The case is part of a growing global movement. All over the world, citizens are taking legal action to force governments to act on climate change. The number of climate litigation cases has doubled since 2017 and as of July 2020, at least 1,550 climate change cases had been filed in 38 countries. In France, we were inspired by Urgenda, a similar case in the Netherlands, in which the court ordered the government to ramp up its emissions reduction target. 

A landmark decision

For the first time ever, a French court ruled that France’s inaction on climate change is illegal and that the State can be held responsible for its climate commitments. The court judged that the State is at fault for failing to take sufficient measures to keep in line with its legal commitments. This is a victory for the truth, given the Government’s constant denial of its lack of action on climate change, despite evidence to the contrary. For example, it has exceeded its annual carbon budgets. Justice decided to side with those who have been warning about climate change for decades.

The court also recognised the existence of “environmental damage”, i.e. the harm done to the environment because of France’s climate inaction. This sets an important legal precedent. It is the first time in France that a public body has been found to be responsible for ecological damage. It leaves the government open to compensation claims from French citizens who have suffered climate-related damage, such as flood victims or farmers and winemakers.

Moreover, this decision is a crucial and necessary first step to obtain a second ruling, which could force the government to take needed action. This is the goal of the “Case of the Century”.

While the four NGOs have asked the court to order the State to take additional measures to fulfil its climate commitments, the court decided to reserve its decision on this point for later. This will allow for further discussions between the French State and the NGOs to discuss what measures the State should take to tackle climate change.

A source of hope for citizens

The French decision is a source of hope for the many French citizens who joined the legal action and are demanding more ambitious public action, but also for the millions of people who are fighting for climate justice all over the world. It shows that public pressure combined with legal action can work.

The ruling comes as many countries are preparing more ambitious targets to reduce emissions, as required by the Paris Agreement. Governments are due to meet in Scotland in November 2021 for the UN Climate Summit (COP26). A recent UN report reveals that current national targets fall far short of the cuts needed to avoid catastrophic global warming.

The French legal decision should serve as a timely reminder to France and all governments, in particular the biggest polluters, to take their international commitments seriously and to lead in the fight against the climate crisis. Words matter, but action matters even more when it comes to fighting climate change.

While President Macron has been very vocal about climate change on the international scene for the past four years, the decision provides a forceful message to all governments that actions speak louder than words. the story is not over yet. The coming months will be dedicated to reinforcing the legal case and identifying the sectors in which additional measures should be taken by the French government. The second ruling is expected by the summer.


Armelle Le Comte