PARIS — A French court ruled on Wednesday that France had caused “ecological damage” by insufficiently reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, a landmark decision that environmentalists said they hoped would be more than merely symbolic as such cases are increasingly brought to courts internationally.
The court said it would give the French government two months to take action before issuing any order to reduce emissions and repair the damage, a decision that the four groups that brought the case described as a “a victory for the truth.”
“We hope that the court will not limit itself to acknowledging the state’s fault,” said the groups, which included the French branches of Greenpeace and Oxfam, in a statement, “but will also compel it to finally take concrete measures to at least meet its climate commitments.”
For now, the ruling by a Paris administrative court was more modest, ordering the French state to pay 1 euro ($1.20) each to the environmental groups, in compensation for the “moral damage” resulting from its failure “to meet its commitments in the fight against climate change.”
An environment ministry spokesperson said in a statement that the government “took note” of the court ruling and was “aware that the initial objectives” to reduce its emissions “had not been achieved.”
It added that a set of new climate-related laws would help France meet its commitments and that the government was “aware of the legitimate expectations and is listening to the questions from civil society on these issues.”
In a statement published by Le Monde newspaper in June, the environment ministry rejected accusations of inaction and argued that it could not be held “uniquely responsible” for climate change in France, since it results from worldwide activity.
The government can appeal the ruling, but it was unclear on Wednesday whether it would.
The lawsuit, the first of its kind in France, signals an escalation in French environmental activism. Earlier actions have consisted of widespread climate demonstrations and civil disobedience initiatives, including protesters’ removal of portraits of President Emmanuel Macron in town halls over what they consider his insufficient commitment on the environment.
Activists also hope the ruling will set a legal precedent for victims of climate change.
The lawsuit was brought in March 2019 by the four groups, which also include the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Notre Affaire à Tous (“An affair that concerns all of us”). It followed an online petition that urged the French government to meet its climate commitments — an initiative that collected more than two million signatures, the largest online mobilization in French history.
The groups said France had breached its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as required by several treaties and national legislation.
In line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement — which aims to limit the rise in global temperature this century to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — France passed a law in 2019 that included a goal for the country to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
To meet this goal, France has vowed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 1.5 percent each year, and 3 percent annually from 2025 onward. Its emissions fell 0.9 percent from 2018 to 2019, according to a report published in July by France’s High Council on Climate, an independent body created by Mr. Macron to advise the government on environmental policies.
“The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions continues to be too slow and insufficient to meet current and future carbon budgets,” the report read.
Although emissions worldwide were down sharply last year because of the coronavirus and the associated lockdowns and restrictions on travel, that pattern is not expected to hold when the pandemic wanes.
In the French case, the campaigners said suing the government was a way to force it to comply with its legal obligations.
But Julien Bétaille, a professor at the University of Toulouse who specializes in environmental law, said the court ruling risked having no deterrent effect, since the groups had sought symbolic damages of just €1 each from the French government.
“Ecological damage has not been taken seriously enough,” he said.
In late 2019, the Netherlands’ Supreme Court ordered the country’s government to significantly reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. That case, brought by the environmental group Urgenda, inspired lawsuits against governments elsewhere in Europe although some courts, including one in Norway, have rejected environmental groups’ requests.
As the effects of climate change become more stark around the world, the issue is gaining traction among the public. In a recent United Nations Development Program survey of people in 50 countries, 64 percent of respondents said climate change was an emergency.
In France, the reckoning has prompted Mr. Macron to set up a Citizen’s Climate Council. He has also called for a referendum to add environmental protection to the Constitution.