A municipality against the failure of the French state: a case of greenhouse gas abatement

With the aim of protecting and safeguarding his town, the mayor of Grande-Synthe, with the support of NGOs Oxfam France, Greenpeace France and Notre Affaire A Tous, and the Fondation pour la Nature et l'Homme, tried to pressure the French government to make climate protection a priority. In particular, the demands focused on the adoption of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as required by the various international treaties signed by the French state and by French law itself. Furthermore, it was requested to prioritise the climate issue and avoid taking measures that could lead to an increase in the percentage of greenhouse gases in the air. However, the mayor never received a reply because the government and the relevant ministries preferred to adopt the practice of silence, rejecting the requests raised in three letters. Given this rejection, the mayor decided to take legal action by appealing to the Conseil d’Etat. 

Despite the recognition of the French state's failure to meet its environmental objectives and the broadening of the parameters in the agreements, the Court could not proceed with the condemnation of the state's non-compliance in favour of the municipality. However, it is interesting to note that the Court reserved the right to continue with further preliminary investigations in order to assess the reasons for the rejection of the request for greenhouse gas reductions, thus not closing the case definitively. 

Analysing the judgement, it is evident that there are various levels of legislation in the field of the environment. However, it is also glaring that even though there is a considerable amount of legislation in this field, it is still difficult to achieve the objectives to protect the environment. This is because the gaps in this legislative field are numerous and easy to exploit. Thus, while the climate emergency is worsening exponentially, France, despite having set itself national, European and international targets for the next 20 to 30 years, is actually lagging behind in their implementation. It is exactly in relation to this failure to achieve that the court mentioned what is known as the direct effect of a law: the council of state has assessed the greenhouse gas emission reduction target as binding, which means that the reasons for the failure to achieve the carbon quotas set out in the National Low Carbon Strategy (SNBC) will be verified at a later stage of the process and justifications for this failure will be requested.

During the proceedings, it was noted that the mayor of Grande-Synthe, as the representative of the municipality's interests, was fully entitled to bring to trial the failure to implement targets for the protection of the air, and the environment in general. This is precisely because, as mentioned above, the non-abatement of greenhouse gas emissions could have a disastrous effect on the area of the municipality given its geographical location. It is interesting to note that the term "ecological damage" (préjudice écologique) is used to describe the damage that could be caused to the French municipality. Introduced within the French Civil Code since 2016, the expression ecological prejudice is used to describe "significant damage to the elements or functions of ecosystems or to the collective benefits that humans derive from the environment"( Translation by the author, the original version of the legal text defines ecological injury ascome "atteinte non négligeable aux éléments ou aux fonctions des écosystèmes ou aux bénéfices collectifs tirés par l'homme de l'environnement"). The link between this term and the cause thus seems obvious: having been recognised as having missed the targets set by international and national conventions, the municipality of Grande-Synthe, as well as all the rest of the French municipalities, has suffered and will suffer the effect of this inaction on the part of the government and the relevant ministries. This means that we could probably see a lawsuit against the French state again in the near future, perhaps supported by more empirical evidence and more social partners. In the name of the law n°2016-1087 it is therefore possible that the French state will not only be forced to accelerate the process of cutting greenhouse gas emissions but will also be financially sanctioned for the damage caused to French territories. The government could then be obliged to respect the commitments made through the signing of various international treaties such as the Treaty of Paris, treaties at European level and commitments resulting from the enactment of national laws.

It might be relevant to note why the targets were not met, and in this sense the hidden actors in this process should probably be considered. The French government, which is responsible for the implementation of green policies, is elected by public voters and will therefore have to interface with them in future elections. The citizens, in a broad sense, might want to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions but, for example, would probably not be in favour of increased taxes on the circulation of their vehicles. Moreover, large industries have the power to generate heavy pressure on the government to avoid implementing more sustainable policies. In general, therefore, it can be seen that although most actors are aware of the need for stricter rules to protect the environment, in reality they are not ready to see them implemented, thus making the government's work even more complex.

Judgment No. 427301
Conseil d’Etat ruling as the supreme administrative court