Total is being challenged by French communities to comply with a climate change lawThe French oil giant Total is facing pressure to comply with a law that requires French companies to be vigilant about climate change. Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

More than a dozen communities and environmental organizations in France are challenging the French multinational oil and gas company Total for its failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis, and are threatening legal action if the company does not address how its business is contributing to global climate change.

In a letter addressed to Total’s chief executive on Monday, representatives of 13 cities and four organizations said the company is not meeting its legal obligations under a recent French law that requires the biggest French companies to assess and prevent impacts from their operations on human rights and the environment.

The French Duty of Vigilance Law, adopted in March 2017, requires large multinational companies that operate in France to establish a plan that identifies and prevents human rights violations and environmental damage or health risks. Total submitted a vigilance plan that is included in its 2017 Registration Document.

The French cities and organizations challenging Total say that its vigilance plan is inadequate and does not meet the legal requirements. In the letter, they write that Total’s plan “does not reflect the reality of the impacts of your activities and the risks of serious damage to the climate system that they induce.”

Total is responsible for more than two-thirds of France’s greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the 20 biggest contributors to worldwide emissions, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project and Carbon Majors database.

Under the law, two of the requirements for the vigilance plan are a “mapping that identifies, analyzes and ranks risks,” and “appropriate action to mitigate risks or prevent serious violations.” Total’s plan fails both of these requirements, according to the letter. While the company does mention that climate change is likely to affect its own operations, it is silent on the larger societal climate impacts resulting from its business activity. Furthermore, according to the letter, the “vigilance plan does not include any appropriate action to mitigate the risks and prevent serious harm resulting from climate change.”

The letter warns Total to fix its vigilance plan or face a lawsuit. The communities challenging Total say they are prepared to file a lawsuit if the company does not correct its vigilance plan by the next corporate filing in March 2019.

“The French Duty of Vigilance Law, the first of its kind in the world, provides us with the legal basis to compel Total to take climate risk into account and take appropriate actions to reduce it,” Sébastien Mabile, lawyer with the Paris-based firm Seattle Avocats, said in a statement.

The action follows the recent decision in a Dutch appeals court to uphold the landmark Urgenda decision, which requires the government of the Netherlands to reduce its emissions as it has promised.

Also in the Netherlands, Royal Dutch Shell faces a lawsuit from an environmental advocacy group over its failure to address its role in climate change.

The French effort comes with a sense of urgency following the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on holding global warming to 1.5 degrees C, the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The French cities and groups are demanding that Total “conform to the climate goal fixed by the Paris Agreement to limit global warming at 1.5°C in order to prevent a climate crisis.” They said the company’s continued exploration and use of oil reserves is evidence it is not aligned with the Paris Agreement. Although the agreement itself is not legally binding, it provides a context for national and international laws that are, like the French duty of vigilance statute.

Total’s total oil production in 2017—937 millions of barrels—was 9 percent higher than in 2015, the year the Paris Agreement was signed. The company invested $1.2 billion in new oil exploration in 2017. Like other petroleum companies, Total is touting natural gas as a cleaner fuel and is projecting that gas and oil will be continually exploited for decades to come. In a recent strategic report on climate change, Total stated, “We believe that oil and gas will continue to play an essential role in the coming decades…We are therefore maintaining a policy of selective investment in our core businesses that will be critical for long-term performance.”

This business-as-usual policy is squarely at odds with the carbon budget underlying the Paris Agreement temperature goals. To have any chance of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees C, experts estimate that half of all gas deposits and a third of oil reserves must remain in the ground.

But with fossil fuel companies doubling down on their core business and with global emissions rising, communities around the world are already reeling from climate impacts.

“Grenoble is a climate sentinel, in the heart of the Alps. Here, global warming is twice stronger and faster than elsewhere. Glaciers are melting, lakes are emptying, biodiversity is decreasing, and snow is missing,” Eric Piolle, mayor of Grenoble, one of the French cities targeting Total, said in a statement.

“It is time for the carbon majors to stop their pollution, it is time to put an end to acts that destroy the planet and create human misery. Grande-Synthe and I are ready for it,” Damien Carême​​, Mayor of Grande-Synthe, a city of 23,000 in northern France, said.

Other French municipalities involved in the request to Total include the Parisian suburbs of Arcueil, Sevran and Nanterre; the smaller villages of Saint-Yon and Correns; the southwestern cities of Bayonne and Bègles; Vitry-le-François in northeastern France; the Mouans-Sartoux community located north of Cannes; the Est Ensemble territory comprising nine communities in the greater Paris metropolitan area; and La Possession, a city located on the French island of Réunion, a territory just east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

The communities have made commitments to environmental sustainability and implementing transformative policies and practices. ​​

“The Total company, like the city of Sevran, must make a concrete commitment in the fight against global warming to reduce the inequalities caused by it on the territories and their inhabitants. It is not just an emergency but also a question of climate and territorial justice,” Stéphane Blanchet, mayor of Sevran, said. ​​

“If necessary, the fight for climate and future generations will be won in court,” Piolle said.