Updated: January 18, 2021 10:41:51 am
A Paris court on Thursday began hearing a landmark case — described by some environmental activists as “the case of the century” — accusing the French government of failing to do enough to halt climate change. The case is part of a lawsuit launched two years ago by a group of environmental NGOs and backed by over 2.3 million citizens.
Ahead of the hearing, several climate activists queued up near the Paris administrative tribunal carrying a giant banner that read, “We are 2.3 million.” The activists and groups behind the case want the court to hold the government accountable for ecological damage in the country.
⚖️L’audience de #LAffaireDuSiecle a lieu aujourd’hui à 13h45, au tribunal administratif de Paris.
✊ 📢 Ce matin nous avons rappelé à l’Etat que nous sommes plus de 2 millions à nous être mobilisé-es et qu’il est de son devoir d’agir rapidement face à l’urgence climatique 👇 pic.twitter.com/GlKIFsRZnW
— Greenpeace France (@greenpeacefr) January 14, 2021
Why was the lawsuit filed against the French government?
The legal case dates back to 2018, when four prominent environmental NGOs — Greenpeace France, Oxfam France, Notre Affaire à Tous and Nicolas Hulot — filed a formal complaint against the French government, after a historic petition against climate change garnered a record 2.3 million signatures.
Unhappy with the response they received, the NGOs launched a lawsuit in March 2019, seeking symbolic damages of just €1 from the French government. Along with the case, the NGOs presented 100 personal testimonies after collecting over 25,000 online, AFP reported.
In their lawsuit, the organisations accused the government of failing to live up the commitments it had made under the Paris Agreement and other national and international climate accords. The NGOs claimed that the government had repeatedly postponed implementing policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and limit the rise in global temperatures.
“Greenhouse gas emissions under this government’s five-year term dropped at a pace that was twice as slow as the trajectories foreseen under the law,” the NGOs said in a joint statement. The groups hope the French government will be held responsible for climate inaction following the case, which will set a precedent for other nations around the world.
“We are full of hope for this hearing and the decision that will follow,” Jean-Francois Julliard, director of Greenpeace France, told AFP. “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.”
Is France doing enough to combat climate change?
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 by nearly every country in the world, with the aim of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But environmental experts say that most nations, including France, have failed to meet the commitments laid down in the agreement.
In December last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a referendum to add the fight against climate change and ecological degradation to the country’s constitution. He acknowledged that France had a long way to go before it could achieve its climate-related targets to curb global warming.
“Should we do more? Yes,” he said during a panel discussion with dozens of French citizens. France is still falling short of the national targets to reduce emission as set under the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, India happens to be the only G20 nation which is on track to meet its goals as per the agreement, DW reported.
A report submitted by France’s independent advisory council on climate warned that the government had to work harder to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the country as it had failed to meet the first official objective of its 2015-18 carbon budget. During this period, annual emissions dropped by a minuscule 1.1 per cent, which was much less than planned, the Guardian reported. The government would have to triple the rate of decrease to meet its targets by 2025, the report stated.
While France has pledged to reduce its emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, experts have said it has far exceeded its carbon budgets and not done enough to make buildings more energy efficient, or to develop renewable energy.
How has the French government responded to the lawsuit?
The French Environment Ministry denied that it failed to comply with its legal obligations to fight climate change and called for the case to be dismissed, CNN reported. France argued that it could not be held “solely responsible” for climate change in the country.
“France makes up around 1% of the world’s population and emits around 1% of the planet’s greenhouse gases each year,” the government wrote in its defence. It argued that a substantial part of the country’s pollution comes from “industrial and agricultural activities” as well as from “individual choices and decisions which it is not always possible to influence”.
Speaking at the One Planet Summit in Kenyan capital Nairobi last year, President Macron said he did not believe the lawsuit would lead anywhere, Reuters reported. “The solution is in all of us. On this issue, it is not the People vs. The Government. This nonsense should stop,” he said. “We all must act. Governments must act. Major enterprises must act. Investors must act. Citizens must act. All together.”
Have other countries faced lawsuits over the climate crisis?
According to a report published by the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics in 2019, climate action lawsuits against governments are becoming a popular phenomenon worldwide. Lawsuits have been launched against governments and corporates in at least 28 countries.
While the United States is the leader in climate litigation, with over 1,023 cases, the study found that other nations were quickly catching up.
In 2015, a Dutch environmental group called the Urgenda Foundation, joined by 900 Dutch citizens, sued the Netherlands government for doing little to prevent global climate change. The District Court in the Hague ordered the country to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, finding the government’s existing pledge of 17 per cent insufficient to meet UN goals.
In October 2019, the German government faced its first climate inaction lawsuit. With the help of Greenpeace, a group of German farmers filed a case against the government after they noticed that their annual yields were reducing due to extended droughts. Berlin’s administrative court, however, later dismissed their argument stating that a 2014 Cabinet decision to cut the country’s emissions by 40 per cent was not legally binding and had been replaced by new targets, AP reported.
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