France is being sued for lack of climate progressEnvironmental groups say France has not lived up to its climate promises. Photo credit: Wikimedia

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By Dana Drugmand

Amid increasingly urgent warnings that the world is nowhere close to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, several nonprofit organizations initiated legal action this week against France, the nation that hosted the climate negotiations that produced the landmark agreement in 2015.

The upcoming lawsuit says the country has failed to adequately address climate change. Four French organizations—Greenpeace France, Oxfam France, Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme and Notre Affaire à Toustook the first step toward a lawsuit by sending a letter of formal notice to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and 12 members of the government. The letter describes climate impacts that France is already experiencing and explains how the government’s failure to take action endangers the welfare of French citizens. The request further urges the government to adopt specific climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.

French officials have two months to respond. The groups may then officially file a case in the Administrative Court of Paris. The case will likely take two years to proceed.

The organizations argue that the French government has not adequately addressed climate change, breaching its legal obligations. Those obligations are outlined in international agreements such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement and in domestic laws such as the French Constitution and a French law passed in 2015 requiring a transition to clean energy.

France is not alone in facing climate liability litigation. Citizens in several countries are asking courts to force greater ambition in rapidly cutting carbon emissions.

Recently, Greenpeace Germany filed a suit on behalf of three farming families against the German government. Like France, which failed to meet emission reduction targets in 2016, Germany has acknowledged it is not on track to meet its 2020 climate target. In the United Kingdom, the  nonprofit climate justice group Plan B sued the British government in December 2017, claiming that the 2050 climate target was insufficient to prevent catastrophic climate change. That case is currently under appeal after the High Court refused to grant it a full hearing. The European Union is also facing a climate lawsuit brought by 10 families challenging the EU’s climate targets and policies. Other European lawsuits are underway in Ireland and Belgium.

These cases are following in the footsteps of the landmark Urgenda case in the Netherlands, the first suit to win a verdict forcing the government to increase its emission reduction targets in order to uphold human rights obligations. The Dutch government lost its appeal, but continues to fight the ruling.

Outside of Europe, young people are rising to the occasion to hold their governments accountable for inadequate climate action. In April, the Supreme Court of Colombia decided in favor of young plaintiffs suing the government over human rights abuses stemming from climate change and deforestation. The ruling orders the government to take steps to halt deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, and even recognizes the ecosystem as having rights of its own. Last month, a nonprofit representing youth in Quebec filed a suit against the Canadian government. And in the U.S., a group of 21 youth plaintiffs are suing the federal government in a case that was first brought in 2015.

This trend of taking legal action against nations that are largely failing to prevent dangerous climate change is expected to continue, especially as the scientific warnings become more dire.

“We’re seeing a dramatic increase in suits of this kind. And we expect that trend to continue and accelerate,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.

“The IPCC’s latest report exposed not only the stark realities of a quickly warming world, but the tremendous gap between the path we’re on and the path we need. Unless and until governments and companies start closing that gap, they will face more protests, more litigation and rising legal risk.”

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