French Courts Ruled on Major Climate Lawsuits Against the State

Two major climate change lawsuits filed against the French State recently prompted French administrative courts to clarify the extent of France's obligations to adopt measures to comply with its greenhouse gas ("GHG") emission reduction targets as well as the scope of the government's liability for the failure to meet said targets.

On November 19, 2020, the Conseil d'Etat, the French Supreme Administrative Court, issued a partial ruling in the Grande-Synthe matter (link to the decision in French). In this matter, the town and the mayor of Grande-Synthe filed a claim seeking an injunction against the French government to take the necessary measures to reduce its GHG emissions in accordance with its commitments both under the Paris Agreement of 2016 and under various European and French regulations. The Conseil d'Etat dismissed the claimants' right to directly invoke violations of the Paris Agreement as an international treaty, but sustained that the Paris Agreement should be taken into consideration in the interpretation of national regulations. In this context, the Conseil d'Etat ruled that French administrative courts have jurisdiction to order the French government to take measures ensuring that the Paris Agreement objectives are met.

However, the Conseil considered that at this stage of the case, the elements provided by the French State did not allow the judges to assess whether France will be able to comply with its GHG emission reduction targets. Therefore, the Conseil d'Etat granted the Ministry of the Environment a three-month period to demonstrate that these targets will be met. At the end of this period, if the French government fails to provide sufficient elements, the Conseil d'Etat will order the government to take additional measures in order to reduce GHG emissions.

In the second lawsuit, self-proclaimed the "case of the century" ("l'Affaire du siècle"), four non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") challenged the liability of the French State before the Administrative Court of Paris for alleged failures to meet its climate change goals. On February 3, 2021, the Administrative Court of Paris addressed the matter (link to the decision in French) and recognized that the French government failed to meet the climate change mitigation goals set out by French regulations, in particular, GHG reduction targets. The Court ruled that such failure had caused direct harm to the environment. As a consequence, the Court required the French government to pay each of the four claimant NGOs the symbolic amount of one Euro, a common practice in France in cases where the purpose of the judicial decision is to set liability as a principle. In addition, the Administrative Court of Paris stated that it would further rule in two additional months on measures that the government should be ordered to undertake in order to prevent further aggravation of the environmental harm.

Both of these rulings are regarded as a major step in climate litigation in France. Now that administrative courts have recognized the responsibility of the government, it could be just a question of time before French civil courts rule against companies targeted by climate claims, albeit under civil liability rules.

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