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A court has convicted the French government of failing to meet its climate goals

Climate change lawsuits are becoming more common around the world.

Greenpeace activists stage a protest in front of the French Assembly building on January 26, 2021.
Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

A Paris court has found the French government guilty of failing to adequately address climate change in a landmark ruling that climate campaigners are calling the “case of the century.”

Four environmental groups — Greenpeace France, It’s Everyone’s Business, Oxfam France, and the Foundation for Nature and Mankind — filed the case in 2018 after 2.3 million people signed a petition expressing dissatisfaction with how the French government was handling its efforts to curb global warming.

The lawsuit accused the French government of having fallen short of its obligations to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in line with its commitments under the 2015 Paris climate agreement and related French laws.

In its ruling issued Wednesday, the court agreed, holding the French state responsible for failures in “implementing public policies to allow it to achieve objectives it had set on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The judges also ruled that there is a link between the ecological damage that has been done and the government’s failures, and that the French state “should be held liable.”

However, the court stressed that compensation is “primarily in kind,” which means that the French government is responsible for fixing the ecological damage caused by its failure to fulfill its emissions targets, but is not financially responsible. The court instead awarded the NGOs one euro in a symbolic move that acknowledges their claims.

The French government now has two months to respond to the decision. Meanwhile, the court is taking more time to look into the ecological damage caused.

Cécile Duflot, the executive director of Oxfam France, called the decision “a historic victory for climate justice.”

“For the first time, a French court has ruled that the state can be held responsible for its climate commitments,” Duflot said, according to Reuters.

The French government was found liable because the country hasn’t met its climate targets

The Paris agreement sets a target of limiting the rise in global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally closer to 1.5°C (compared to temperatures before the Industrial Revolution), by the end of the century.

The international accord, signed onto by nearly 200 countries including France, is voluntary, meaning there are no defined punishments for countries that fail to meet their emissions reduction targets.

As part of its efforts to meet those targets, though, France in June 2019 enshrined its goal of having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law. To achieve that, the French government pledged to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 1.5 percent each year, and 3 percent annually starting in 2025.

But it hasn’t come anywhere close to that target.

From 2015-2018, France emitted 18 million tons of CO2 equivalent a year, 4 percent more than planned. Two sectors had a particularly tough record over the period: transport exceeded its emissions budget by 11 percent and construction by 23 percent.

Alarmed by this lack of progress, the environmental groups decided to take legal action. And they’re not the only ones looking to the legal system to hold their governments accountable.

Climate lawsuits are popping up all around the world

A “rapid increase in climate litigation” is happening around the world, according to a 2020 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report.

In 2017, there were 884 climate cases filed in 24 countries. By July 1, 2020, at least 1,550 climate change cases had been filed in 38 countries, nearly doubling the amount of climate litigation over that time frame.

According to the UNEP report, governments are most frequently the defendants in climate change litigation. But two cases in particular stand out in their similarities to the French example.

The first is a 2019 case, Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands, in which the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Netherlands is responsible for taking necessary measures for addressing climate change under the European Convention on Human Rights.

And in another 2020 case, Friends of the Irish Environment v. the Government of Ireland, Ireland’s Supreme Court nixed the country’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan because it wasn’t compliant with 2015’s Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act. The court found that the 2017 plan fell “well short” of requirements, so the Irish government must now create a new plan.

Similarly to the French court decision, the plaintiffs in the Dutch and Irish cases “argued that national [greenhouse gas] policies are insufficiently aggressive to be consistent with national climate change mitigation obligations.”

The UN report’s authors argue that the dramatic increase in climate cases around the world will be a driving force in bringing action on climate change. And it appears that the environmental groups involved in the French case feel the same.

Cécilia Rinaudo, the director of It’s Everyone’s Business, one of the groups involved in the French case, called Wednesday’s court ruling “a victory for all the people who are already facing the devastating impact of the climate crisis that our leaders fail to tackle.”

“The time has come for justice,” Rinaudo said.

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