French Municipalities, Activists Sue Total to Reduce Emissions

The lawsuit charges France's largest fossil fuel firm with endangering the environment and human rights because it hasn't lowered its carbon pollution.

by | Jan 28, 2020

Total oil refinery at Gonfreville-l'Orcher, in northwest France. Total oil refinery at Gonfreville-l'Orcher, in northwest France. (Credit: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images)

The French petroleum company Total is facing a new climate lawsuit by several environmental groups and 14 local governments, seeking to force the company to reduce emissions to protect French citizens.

The groups served an official court summons on Total on Tuesday in a court near Paris. The lawsuit comes after the groups and communities warned Total last year they were prepared to sue to force the company to comply with a French law requiring companies to identify risks and prevent violations to human rights and the environment.

That Law on the Duty of Vigilance, adopted in March 2017, obligates companies to produce a plan explaining how their operations prevent human rights and environmental abuses. Total’s first vigilance plan failed to include any reference to climate change, which led the French groups to write to Total’s chief executive in October 2018 demanding the company fix its plan, or face legal action. 

“Total is legally required to identify the risks resulting from its contribution to global warming and to take the necessary measures to reduce its emissions,” said Sandra Cossart, director of Sherpa, one of the organizations involved in the new lawsuit. The plaintiffs are asking the court to order Total to acknowledge the climate risks related to its business activities and to align its business with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is the first lawsuit in France targeting an oil company for its role in the climate crisis. 

Shell is facing a similar lawsuit in the Netherlands. Environmental groups, backed by more than 17,000 Dutch citizens, sued the oil giant last year demanding it adjust its business model to align with the 1.5 degree C temperature target. This kind of emerging litigation aims to hold the industry accountable for expanding the oil and gas business at a time when climate scientists warn the energy system must rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. 

Several reports in recent months have found that current plans for fossil fuel production are incompatible with the Paris Agreement. None of the major oil and gas companies’ business plans are aligned with this objective, and, according to one analysis, they must cut their production by a combined 35 percent by 2040 if the world is to meet the Paris targets. 

Total is the largest oil and gas producer in France, and is directly responsible for around 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to recent research, it is among the top 20 companies responsible for one-third of global emissions since 1965. Total has contributed 12.35 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent during this time, the research shows.. 

“A study that we are about to publish shows that Total is among the worst performers in the CAC 40 [French market index] in terms of climate impact mitigation,” said Paul Mougeolle of the French group Notre Affaire à Tous. “All the more reason to request the judge to order the French oil multinational to make its energy transition.” 

The environmental groups bringing the lawsuit include Notre Affaire à Tous, Sherpa, France Nature Environnement, Eco Maires and ZEA. More than a dozen local governments are also joining as plaintiffs, including the communities of Arcueil, Bayonne, Bègles, Bize-Minervois, Centre Val de Loire, Champneuville, Correns, Est- Ensemble Grand Paris, Grenoble, La Possession, Mouans-Sartoux, Nanterre, Sevran et Vitry-le- François.

“In Grenoble, the consequences of climate change are already visible: by 2050, Grenoble residents will experience 3 months of heat waves a year, and snow will continue to disappear in winter. Glaciers are melting, mountains are crumbling,” said Eric Piolle, mayor of Grenoble. “Because cities are on the front line, it is also through them that change must happen. On a daily basis, we are taking steps to anticipate, limit and adapt to climate change. Together, we also have a responsibility to push the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to lead by example.” 

By Dana Drugmand

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Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.