Filing a case is a symbolic move, but one that legal experts say can be an effective tool to push governments to act.
Over two million people signed a petition supporting the move by the NGOs, which filed the case in the French administrative court Thursday morning.
“We are suing the French state and French administration for climate inaction, in terms of their reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” Marine Denis, of the group Notre affaire à tous (It’s everyone’s business), one of the four groups that filed the case, told RFI. “The French state has legal obligations to respect European directives or French laws in the fight against climate change, and it has not respected its objectives.”
The three other groups are Greenpeace, Oxfam and the foundation of former environment minister Nicolas Hulot, who quit President Emmanuel Macron's government last year because he said it failed to implement a green economy.
Campaigners say they have no choice but to file a lawsuit, as the government has failed to implement policies to properly curb emissions and address climate change.
“Since the 1990s, French governments have not done enough,” Celia Gauthier of the Nicolas Hulot foundation told RFI. The groups are hoping for a ruling that would require France to act, she explains.
“The judge would say: ‘You have an obligation to act on climate. You haven’t done so, or not sufficiently in the past. You have to take all the measures necessary to comply with your target: reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2040, and to be carbon neutral by 2050, which are the current targets.”
Not the first case
This was the ruling on a case brought by the Dutch NGO Urgenda, which filed a case on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens against the government for climate inaction.
“We were the first NGO to say that a government has a general duty to reduce emissions. There had been smaller lawsuits where climate was an aspect, but we were the first to say… the state has a general duty to protect us against climate change,” Dennis van Berkel, Urgenda’s legal counsel, told RFI.
In 2015 a court ruled that the Dutch government must reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels – the minimum amount needed to meet its international commitments. The case is currently waiting to be heard by the country’s Supreme Court.
The ruling against The Netherlands served as a model for lawsuits against other governments, including France.
“The basic premise of the case being launched in France is that the French government is not doing enough to reduce emissions, and by not doing that it is acting in violation of its international commitments under the Paris agreement, and it’s also violating the human rights of French citizens. That was the core of the arguments we put forward in or case,” explains Van Berkel.
Proving it in court
The decision in France will depend on the French courts' assessment of current efforts made by France.
“What these four NGOs are claiming is that what France is doing right now is not sufficient. One of the reasons they’ve put forward is that emissions are actually rising, and not falling. I think that’s a pretty convincing argument,” says Van Berkel.
“The NGOs have to prove, using scientific expertise and reports, that there is a strong causal link between the inaction of the French state and the damages,” Marthe Torre-Schaub, a climate justice researcher, and senior fellow at the French centre for scientific research, told RFI.
Torre-Schaub says the Urgenda case rested on two successful legal arguments: “The duty of care, which is the obligation of the state to protect citizens. And the European convention of human rights, article 2 and 8, to protect the right to life and the right to family and private life, two articles that have been used in other environmental cases before.”
The French case will take a while to make its way through the courts, and whatever the outcome, it has limited power.
“The judge cannot tell the government what to do. The judge can only say that ‘you have not done enough, and now you have to do more,’” explains Torre-Schaub. “It’s very symbolic, and very political. Climate change litigation is not only about the law. There are also symbolic and political results."
Courts not alone
The French government responded to the case in February, and argued that measures taken were "starting to produce results".
On Thursday, at a climate summit in Kenya, Macron said he doubted the judge would condemn France, and questioned the methodology.
"I do not buy into this spirit. The solution is in all of us, it’s not the people against the government on these subjects. We need to stop this nonsense,” he said. “It’s up to all of us: governments must move, big companies, investors, citizens.”
Campaigners say legal action is just one tool, along with advocacy work, policy proposals and demonstrations.
“We think that acting through justice, through a lawsuit is a new means, which is absolutely necessary, considering the climate emergency we are in,” says Denis.
The filing of the lawsuit on Thursday kicks off three days of climate action in France, with a student climate strike planned for Friday, and a large climate march, dubbed ‘The march of the century’, organised for Saturday.
Reversing climate trade trends “requires a massive amount of effort, and we are still not seeing that. So in the absence of what we want to see – big political and government action on climate change – I think more and more people will feel the necessity to go to the courts and demand that action is being taken.”