L'Affaire du Siècle celebrates their victory on February 3, 2021. Photo: Emeric Fohlen / L'Affaire du Siècle

Climate justice in the courts: are trials the future of climate activism in France?

All over Europe, NGOs and individuals are bringing environmental battles to the courts. In France, two major climate cases are bringing a new reckoning to the government’s climate policies.
All over Europe, NGOs and individuals are bringing environmental battles to the courts. In France, two major climate cases are bringing a new reckoning to the government’s climate policies.

“We did it, we won… You won!”: in a video published on February 3rd, 2021, famous French actors, Youtube stars, politicians and activists proclaimed in unison a “historic victory for the climate”. “With the ‘Case of the Century’, we succeeded, together, in getting the State condemned for climate inaction,” announced actress Marion Cotillard into the camera. 

After two years of mobilisation and a petition signed by 2.3 million citizens, a landmark climate trial had reached a preliminary conclusion: the French State had been found guilty of failing to act against the climate crisis and not keeping to its environmental commitments. 

A few months before this case, the State had already faced an important reckoning of its environmental policy. In November 2020, seized by the municipality of Grande-Synthe, the highest administrative court ruled that the government-established greenhouse gas reduction goals were binding. The court gave the administration three months to justify its climate policies in this regard. 

Climate change litigation is on the rise. Graph: UNEP, Global Climate Litigation Report: 2020 Status Review

Climate litigation cases have almost doubled in the past three years, according to a report by the UN Environment Programme. In Europe particularly, this shift to the courts has sped up recently. 

“Before 2015 and the signature of the Paris agreement, we had not necessarily considered the way of the courts as the most appropriate”, explains researcher in environmental law Marta Torre-Schaub

But, exasperated with the lack of binding commitments and unambitious measures, French NGOs and activists are now increasingly reaching to the justice system to fight environmental battles. The recent victories of Grande-Synthe and the “Case of the Century”, although only preliminary in the judicial process, increase the hopes for quick environmental action.

A call for honesty

“It is the first time that France is convicted for not acting enough against global warming, and that global warming is considered an “environmental prejudice”, explains Marie Toussaint. Toussaint is a Green Member of the European Parliament and founder of the association Notre Affaire À Tous, one of the four plaintiff NGOs in the “Case of the Century”. 

“When the judge says every carbon budget must be respected, it prevents policymakers from promising something that they will not implement. It is a true call for honesty and truthfulness in politics,” she adds.

For civil society, these trials could push for concrete changes in climate policies, following a model in the Netherlands. In 2015, the landmark Urgenda case resulted in a legally binding order to the Dutch State to immediately reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). The Supreme Court upheld this ruling in 2019. 

In the aftermath, the Dutch government articulated an even more ambitious climate law aiming to reduce emissions by 49% by 2030, explains Laura Burgers, a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam who has extensively studied this historical case. “Politicians refer to Urgenda and say that it must not happen again. It is a motivation for them to implement climate measures,” she assesses.

The Administrative Court of Paris, where the “Case of the Century” was ruled. Photo: Julie Bourdin

The government’s reaction

The French government reacted to the 3 February 2021 ruling by recognizing that previous emissions goals for 2015-2018 had not been met, and pointing to the new “Climate and Resilience Law”, which was presented to the Parliament on 10 February 2021. “The government is attentive to civil society calls on these topics,” the press release read. But this government reaction came in a context of mistrust against the authorities and this climate law in particular. 

The government is accused of hindering proposals submitted by the Citizen’s Convention on Climate, a panel of 150 French citizens tasked by President Macron to establish a list of ambitious environmental measures. While Macron had promised to pass on their proposals to the Parliament “without a filter,” the members of the panel found their measures modified, in some cases heavily, in the Climate and Resilience draft bill. 

Notably, the government altered the proposed criminalization of “ecocide”, which aimed to severely punish grave damage to ecosystems. In the draft bill, “ecocide” was modified into a simple infraction of “generalized pollution of water, air and land, a proposal activists find largely insufficient.

“We won!” Celebrities celebrate the victory of the “Case of the Century”. Original video: L’Affaire du Siècle

“Like talking to a wall”

“I have the impression of a government that does not know how to listen to civil society,” laments Marine Calmet, founder of the legal incubator NGO Wild Legal. The NGO advised the Citizen’s Convention on the topic of ecocide. “It feels like talking to a wall,” adds Calmet. 

She hopes that the Parliament will consider the amendments to the draft bill proposed by NGOs and the Convention. That way, France can equip itself with “the necessary tools to compel the State or report efficiently to be sure to reach our climate goals,” Calmet explains. 

If the government’s climate inertia endures, “we will systematically head to the judge to try to reverse the power balance,” she says. “But this is not satisfying, this is not democracy.”

While the final rulings in these new climate trials could take several years, they already bring new visibility to climate change. 

“We should have already made the right decisions to protect the planet 50 years ago,” says Marie Toussaint. But “when we have been fighting for years for climate agreements to be binding, then two or three years are not that long,” Toussaint concludes.

Activists protest in front of the administrative court of Paris on the first day of the Affair of the Century. Photo: Nicolas Chauveau / L’Affaire du Siècle