Belgian and French Courts Ruled on New Climate Lawsuits Against Governments

On May 26, 2021, the Hague District Court ordered, in a groundbreaking decision, Royal Dutch Shell Plc to ensure that the aggregate annual volume of all carbon dioxide emissions of the Shell group, its suppliers, and customers is reduced by at least net 45% by the end of 2030, relative to 2019 levels. Since then, climate litigation has once again made headlines in Europe with two new decisions issued, this time against the Belgian and French governments regarding their commitments in the fight against climate change.

On June 17, 2021, the Brussels Court of First Instance ruled in favor of the nongovernmental organization ("NGO") Klimaatzaak/L'Affaire Climat and 58,000 citizens, condemning the Belgian federal and regional governments for negligent climate policy. The judgment is regarded as groundbreaking in several ways. In this case, the Brussels court found that the Belgian authorities failed to implement thorough climate governance, thus breaching their duty of care. By doing so, the court also found that the authorities violated the right to life and to respect for private and family life enshrined in articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a reasoning comparable to the Dutch Urgenda judgment, the Brussels court emphasized that the global dimension of climate change does not exempt Belgium from its obligations under the aforementioned fundamental rights. However, in contrast to the Urgenda judgment, the court refused to issue an injunction to meet stricter targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of the principle of the separation of powers, thus depriving the decision of immediate practical effect. The NGO already announced its intention to appeal the judgment before the Brussels Court of Appeal to impose more specific obligations on the Belgian governments and possibly to bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights.

On July 1, 2021, the French Supreme Administrative Court ("Conseil d'Etat") ruled once again in favor of the French city of Grande-Synthe which required the court to overturn the French government's refusal to take additional measures to meet the Paris Agreement goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. The French court observed that the decrease in emissions in 2019 was minor and that the decrease in 2020 was not significant in light of the slow economic activity induced by the COVID-19 crisis. As a consequence, the French court found that compliance with the reduction targets established by the French government as part of its National Low Carbon Strategy, which provides for a 12% decrease in emissions for the period 2024-2028, does not appear to be achievable if new measures are not adopted immediately. The Conseil d'Etat therefore ordered the government to take additional measures by March 31, 2022, in order to achieve the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.

Both of these rulings confirm the growingly stringent trend in climate litigation and will most certainly have repercussions on Belgian and French government policies and regulations on climate change, leading to new and stricter obligations for companies.

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