Holding States Legally Accountable for Climate Inaction

Yi Qian Chan (Beau), Strategic Development Director (2020/21)


2 min read

In March 2019, 4 environmental NGOs filed the case to convict the French government of climate inaction following the delivery of a petition with a record-breaking 2.3 million signatures seeking to hold the state accountable for "ecological damage"

This month, the Paris court found the state guilty of "non-respect of its engagements" on reducing greenhouse gas emission levels. Compensation awarded was "primarily in kind", i.e. the French government must fix said ecological damage instead of being financially responsible.

Paris Agreement 2016

Aimed to limit global warming to less than 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, by reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 

Aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Though the international accord was not meant to be legally enforceable due to countries opting into it voluntarily, the French government did enshrine its goal of having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law

In a written defence, the French government rejected accusations of climate inaction and asked the court to throw out the claimants’ claim of damages on account of them being not the sole party responsible for global emission levels.

However, Environmental experts say the French administration has failed to meet their commitments. a lack of political will to invest in and develop renewable energy etc, a general slow pace in adapting buildings to become more energy-efficient and exceeding carbon budgets. 

Significance of the Paris court's ruling 

The ruling by the Paris court effectively set a historic precedent for governments worldwide that climate inaction is no longer tolerable, but also illegal. Greenpeace France one of the four plaintiffs credited the landmark decision for not only taking into consideration 


empirical evidence

the people's demands from public policies,

But also for inspiring citizen’s all over the world to unite and hold their government accountable for climate change through legal recourse. 

The victory is hoped to trigger greater action to limit the climate breakdown by framing protection from the detrimental impacts of “ecological damage” on public health and social conditions as a human right.

The rise of climate litigation cases around the world

The lawsuit is among a growing number of climate litigation cases forming part of climate campaigners' efforts to pressure politicians into action via legal recourse, according to a 2020 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report. In 2017, 884 climate change cases were filed in no less than 24 countries. This number nearly doubled by July 2020, amounting to 1550 cases in 38 counties.

Urgenda Foundation v State of the Netherlands (2019)

Similar to the French court's latest decision, the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government of the Netherlands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least a quarter of 1990 levels by the end of 2020. This effectively placed the responsibility for taking the necessary measures to address climate change squarely on the state, a decision that was made in light of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Friends of the Irish Environment v the Government of Ireland (2020)
the Irish Supreme Court similarly found in favour of the plaintiff NGO, and held that Ireland's 2017 National Mitigation Plan fell "well short" of emission reduction requirements outlined in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, hence the need to create a new plan. “ Legal recognition is only the first step towards the implementation of practical and efficient measures to combat climate change as a whole.