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Court ruling calls out France’s Paris Agreement failures

05 February 2021 Cristina Brooks

A French court decision cheered climate activists this week by ordering the country's government to look into its failings under several climate policy pledges, such as 40% emissions reductions under the Paris Agreement.

In siding with some of the accusations by environmental groups, the decision reminded observers of two recent European court cases: a 2019 ruling in favor of non-profit Urgenda Foundation in the Netherlands and 2020 ruling in favor of Friends of the Irish Environment in Ireland.

On 3 February, the Administrative Court of Paris insisted on its right to scrutinize the French government's environmental policy and warned President Emmanuel Macron and his colleagues they must honor the country's emissions goals in the wake of a 2019 filing by the French arm of UK-headquartered nonprofit group Oxfam.

While the court rejected several requests for €1 in symbolic compensation for ecological damage, it urged the state to stop worsening such damage. One environmental group's filings had suggested France hurt the environment by exceeding an annual limit set for nitrogen dioxide.

However, the court said the government did owe Oxfam France €1 in symbolic compensation for collective damages. The charity said that one of its statutory purposes was mitigating the effects of climate change, and that the French government's policy failures had undermined its ability to fulfill this role. It also awarded four claimants €1 each in a "moral prejudice" gesture, accepting the bad character of the government.

The court also ordered that the government "take all measures" to achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction obligations, including submitting the results of an investigation into its own policies to all the parties within two months of the judgment.

Following on from this, the government could face a wider-reaching judgment in the spring based on that investigation, Oxfam France said in a statement on the case.

Promises, promises

In two 2019 fillings in the Paris court, Oxfam argued the government was subject to a general obligation to combat climate change under its constitution's Charter on the Environment, as well as international obligations under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement.

As an EU member state, France's Paris Agreement commitments align with the bloc-wide target of cutting emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels by 2030. But, according to a report by German-government-backed partnership Climate Transparency, so far, France's level of climate policy performance is "medium."

In 2019, France upped the ante by copying Britain's plan to reach net-zero GHGs by 2050.

France has denied that its climate policies are inadequate despite exceeding carbon ceilings, said Oxfam France. The government's own independent executive council on the climate has described how France's 2020 emissions levels fell short of its targets in a report released in July.

Global impact

The French government now must demonstrate to the court and to environmental groups how it is planning to meet climate commitments, Markus Gehring, a director of studies at Hughes College and a legal expert at Cambridge University's Centre for European Legal Studies, told IHS Markit.

For example, the French government must now show how it will fulfill its net-zero commitment for challenging sectors such as vehicles and agriculture, which are, as of yet, unconstrained by the need to purchase emissions allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).

This is an interim judgment, and now the French government will either appeal, or the administrative court proceedings could continue further, Gehring said.

The case has implications for making governments around the world more accountable for their on-paper climate commitments, under the Paris Agreement for example, he added.

Indications in the decision are that France's courts may be prepared to give the reins of climate policy over to environmental groups. "That is quite progressive. It means the court won't let the state come up with whatever it likes. It lets the bodies that fight for climate do that," said Gehring.

But, ironically, the decision could represent a setback for climate advocates, Gehring said. If the case is successful in holding France to account, states could grow cautious and less liberal in future Paris Agreement commitments, if those commitments leave them legally vulnerable.

"On the other hand, falling far short of what is necessary is also a dire state of affairs, so I personally welcome this judgement because I think that even just increasing the accountability of government to the point where they have to explain their targets is a good thing," said Gehring.

He added that trade treaties, for example between the UK and China, are another mechanism that could keep Paris Agreement pledges in check.

As decisions like these become more common, private companies in sectors like energy are likely to become increasingly affected. "Every large corporation, including energy companies, needs to think about how they will comply in the future with the Paris Agreement," added Gehring.

The Cambridge college where Gehring is Director of Studies in Law is working with a company called Chapter Zero, which advises the boards of companies on related measures, and boards are just starting to realize the discussion is real. "It's not outlawing any particular industry, it is just asking them to start acting on this, because the decisions at the national level taking climate change seriously are not going to go away," said Gehring.

Posted 05 February 2021 by Cristina Brooks, Senior Journalist, Climate and Sustainability


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