‘Historic’ ruling forces France to justify climate policies

Legal activists have hailed a new ruling by France’s constitutional court that will require the government to prove it has put in place adequate policies to reach its 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal.

In an interim judgment handed down on Thursday, the court gave the French government three months to demonstrate its current policies are compatible with a target to cut emissions by 40% by the end of the decade, to justify why it has refused to take additional climate action measures.

The case had been brought by the commune of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk on France’s North Sea coast that faces heightened flooding and erosion risks as a result of climate change. Lawyers representing the commune argued that the government’s climate policies do not go far enough to meet its emissions reduction goal.

In its ruling, the court noted that France breached its first ‘carbon budget’ of 442 megatonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year over the 2015-2018 period by 62MT, corresponding to an average annual emissions cut of just 1% compared to the legal target of 2.2%. It added that the government’s independent climate advisory body last year had deemed its current climate policies to be inadequate.

In a decree passed in April 2020, the government lowered the threshold for its second carbon budget, pushing back the lion’s share of emissions cuts to after 2021.

The court said more evidence is needed to judge whether to overturn the state’s “implicit refusal to take all useful measures to bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions” in order to meet the 2030 goals.

While the judgment primarily concerned the government’s domestic climate targets, it noted that France’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change “should be taken into consideration in the interpretation of national law”.

Green MEP Damien Carême, who in 2018 as the mayor of Grande-Synthe had initiated the legal proceedings, welcomed the “historic” ruling. “It is unacceptable to see a government sign agreements and boast of its climate ambition, but that does nothing to put those agreements into action. The reality is that France is not up to scratch. Worse yet, it is among Europe’s worst performers when it comes to developing renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

He added: “To pursue this legal action, I used scientific studies that establish the risks of Grande-Synthe slipping beneath the waves in less than 30 years… Today every day counts in the fight against climate change.”

The ruling is the latest in a series of legal victories for climate change campaigners across Europe. In August, Ireland’s supreme court quashed the government’s climate action plan after finding it did not provide enough details on how it would achieve an 80% cut in emissions by 2050.

Last year, the Dutch government lost its final appeal against the 2015 ‘Urgenda’ ruling, which ordered lawmakers to cut emissions by 25% by 2020, five percentage points beyond what it had agreed with the EU.


Follow-up: Constitutional court announcement and ruling (both in French)