Editor’s note: This article was updated on Feb. 3, 2021 to reflect the decision taken by the Paris administrative court on this case.
There are lots of reasons to be hopeful about the global fight against climate change — not least the fact that the US moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement just hours after President Joe Biden took office.
But there is still a long way to go, and slowing the rate of global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius requires accountability from all world leaders.
This is precisely the message that four environmental organizations had tried to get across to the French government — and on Wednesday, their efforts saw success.
In a ruling issued on Wednesday morning, the Paris administrative court declared the French state guilty of failing to meet its climate targets, following an appeal filed by Greenpeace France, Oxfam France, Notre Affaire à Tous, and the Nicolas Hulot Foundation in 2019.
The case, dubbed “Case of the Century”, was brought before the court after a petition launched in 2018 gathered more than 2.3 million signatures in less than three weeks — the most successful in French history, according to organizers.
The campaign then benefitted from the support of many prominent French celebrities — including actresses Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche, and many others — lending a voice to it.
Among their demands, the activists called for concrete actions to address France’s delay in meeting its climate targets set by the Paris Agreement.
In particular, they advocated for a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; better protection for French people “in the face of the impacts of climate change”; and for leaders to be held accountable for “intolerable inaction”.
The ruling issued by the Paris court takes these claims into serious account by asking for action rather than monetary compensation for environmental damage. Alongside a symbolic amount of 1 euro in compensation for “moral prejudice”, the French state will most importantly need to now take concrete steps to meet its climate goals and lower its greenhouse emissions, the court reportedly said.
Activists welcomed the court’s decision, which they had long hoped would send a clear signal to the French government — and the rest of the world.
“This decision marks a first historic victory for the environment,” the four groups said in a statement. “With this extraordinary ruling, as of today, direct victims of climate change in France will be able to claim compensation.”
Taking the state to court to force it to protect climate is not new, however: and elsewhere in the world, other climate legal disputes have led to positive results.
In the Netherlands, for example, the Supreme Court ordered a reduction in the country's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020, following a case brought by activists.
Six young Portuguese activists have also initiated similar proceedings against European leaders; while a 14-year-old activist, Sadie Vipond, recently launched a lawsuit against the Canadian government for its climate failures.
Like these international precedents, the "Case of the Century" could therefore lead to political commitments to put France — and perhaps even the world — back on track to meet climate goals.