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France: Court Finds Government Failed to Live Up to Carbon Emissions Reduction Objectives

(Mar. 8, 2021) On February 3, 2021, the Administrative Tribunal of Paris issued a judgment finding the French government liable for failing to live up to its own carbon emissions reduction objectives. This decision came in response to a lawsuit brought by four nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in March 2019, in which they sought to have the court recognize the French government’s shortcomings in the fight against climate change.

As the preliminary step in bringing their lawsuit, the four NGOs sent a letter to the government alleging that the government had failed to live up to several environmental objectives contained in French regulations and European directives that should have been reached by 2020. These include the goals of a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20% reduction in overall energy consumption, and a 23% increase in the share of renewable energy in French production. This letter was supported by an online petition that had been signed by close to 1.8 million people by the time the letter was sent to the government on December 18, 2018. The government did not respond to the letter, hence giving the plaintiffs standing to bring the lawsuit.

The four NGOs, acting collectively under the name “L’Affaire du Siècle” (“The Case of the Century”), alleged that the government’s inaction was causing environmental harm, which is a cause for liability under articles 1247 to 1252 of the French Civil Code. The administrative tribunal found that this environmental harm was demonstrated by, among other things, the constant increase in average global temperatures. The tribunal further identified a causal relationship between this environmental harm and the government’s failure to meet its emissions reduction commitments.

The four NGOs sought monetary damages from the government to, in the words of one of their attorneys, “reverse the financial incentive, [and] show the government that these procedures could cost it more than really pursuing these objectives.” However, the administrative tribunal denied this request, noting that the civil code provides for monetary damages in these types of cases only if the measures to repair the environmental harm are impossible or insufficient. The administrative tribunal ordered the government to pay each NGO one euro (about US$1.20) as a symbolic reparation for “moral prejudice.” More importantly, the tribunal acceded to the plaintiffs’ other main demand, which was to compel the government to take measures to repair or mitigate the environmental harm. To that effect, it gave itself two months to investigate what measures it might order the government to pursue, instructing the government to submit statements on the subject within that time frame. The administrative tribunal will render its final decision after this supplemental investigation.

This decision marks the first time that a French court has found the government liable for failing to fulfill its emissions reduction commitments, and it has been hailed as “historic” by the plaintiffs. However, this decision is comparable to one rendered by the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest jurisdiction for matters of administrative law, on November 19, 2020. In that case, brought by the mayor of a coastal town that risks being submerged by rising seas, the Conseil d’Etat was also asked to judge whether the French government was doing enough to reach its goal of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. The Conseil d’Etat ruled against a motion to dismiss by the government, finding that the government could be found liable for failure to do enough to reach its emissions reduction goals. Contrary to the Administrative Tribunal of Paris in the “Case of the Century” decision, the Conseil d’Etat did not render a final judgment in the matter of whether the government was liable. Instead, it gave the government three months to show that it is taking sufficient actions to fight against climate change, after which the Conseil d’Etat will give its final judgment in the matter.