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How can we hold States accountable for climate inaction? - The "case of the century" example

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

by Léa Royer

Last February, the verdict of what the French dubbed the “case of the century” was rendered. This case started in 2018 with four associations (Notre affaire à tous, Oxfam France, the Fondation Nicolas Hulot pour la Nature et l'Homme, and Greenpeace) who united to put the French State on trial for not respecting its commitments of decarbonization. In a country where the State seems to be serious about te environmental issues, having included these obligations in its constitution since 2005, such a trial can seem surprising. However, despite many political and legal commitments, carbon emissions continue to increase in France. Faced with the urgency of the climate crisis and the slowness of policy implementation, civil society decided to take the matter to court.

“The case of the century” is unprecedented on many levels. It is the first time that an environmental case is receiving such attention in the media in France. While the French state has been condemned by European courts on several occasions. Secondly, while French administration and certain administrative decisions have been revoked in national courts, it is the very first time that the French government is being sued in a local administrative court. The case is a reminder that we, regular citizens, can hold the government accountable for its climate commitments thanks to the law.

Besides, the four associations launched an innovative communication strategy to ensure that the majority of the society would feel included and concerned by the case. In 2018, they published a Youtube video that went viral on social media. It has been seen more than 600,000 times and led to 2.3 million signatures in a petition to support the case. Through the voices of famous singers, humorists, YouTubers, and actors in a pedagogical and compelling narrative, the video alarmingly features the significant consequences of the current increase in temperatures on our health and well-being. Also, the video confronts us with inconvenient truths. Despite the alarming “Our house is burning” stated by Jacques Chirac in 2002, and the ironical “make our planet great again” claimed by Emmanuel Macron in 2017, action to tackle climate change has been prolonged and insufficient. Even if a judge’s legal decision cannot be based or even influenced by this campaign video and a mass petition, it still adds pressure around the case. It forces the legal authorities to take the matter very seriously. Thanks to this innovative communication strategy, the case is not only brought by four plaintiffs, but also supported and followed by the French population.

The French State is committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Throughout the years, to achieve this goal, it promulgated national laws, ratified international conventions, and even incorporated an environmental Charter in the French constitutionality block. However, the plaintiffs estimate that the government’s climate actions don’t fulfill all these commitments. Justice usually punishes those who violate the law. However, law can also be a fantastic tool to punish those who don’t meet their legal engagements. In the “case of the century,” we seek to force the State to act. It is no longer a matter of blaming the State for instituting a measure that violates the rights of citizens but a matter of urging the necessary steps not to violate the rights of future generations. This accusation of inaction is an opportunity to trigger concrete State climate actions. It also pushes the State to be more severe and vigilant vis à vis polluters, who largely contribute increasing carbon emissions, jeopardizing the objective of carbon neutrality by 2050.

The court must be sure and certain of the accused’s guilt in order to legally condemn it. As in all the environmental cases, the challenge here was to establish that the delay in achieving carbon neutrality was indeed due to the French State’s lack of awareness of its obligations. Carbon is a chemical element that moves without regard to borders and the greenhouse gas emission rate certainly depends on national activity, but not only. So, to what extent is the French State responsible for this delay in achieving carbon neutrality?

According to the court, enough to be considered guilty. By a decision of the 3rd of February 2021, the administrative court of Paris recognizes the French State guilty for climate inaction, providing not only a historic victory for the plaintiffs but also for the French population. France seems to follow the path of the Netherlands, where in 2019, the court of justice found the Dutch state guilty of climate inaction. Similar cases are ongoing in several countries.

The French state was ordered to pay a symbolic euro to the applicants “in compensation for their moral prejudice.” Of course, the economic compensation isn’t the real success here, but it asserts the State’s responsibility. Anyway, according to the French civil code, compensation for ecological damage must be in kind. The court considered that an additional instruction of two months is needed to gather additional information from the defendants and to issue a final condemnation. Even if we are waiting for the final details, the fact that the French state is recognized guilty represents a giant step towards a more hopeful future. The law is an undeniable and strong tool to promote planetary health.

About the author: Léa Royer is a french law student finishing her Master's degree in International and Humanitarian Health Law at Montpellier Law University, France. She's been interested in issues concerning fundamentals rights, ethics, and public health. Léa wants to continue her formation to defend the concept of planetary health since she hardly believes in the inseparable bond that unites human health and environmental health.

She's now an intern at Women Leaders for planetary Health, putting into practice her knowledge, and learning all the possibilities of the planetary health approach.

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