Written by 8 h 48 min Environment and Climate, Front page, Press release-en, Strengthening corporate accountability litigation

Climate change litigation against Total: a first victory for the NGOs and local authorities

Paris, 11 February 2021 – In the climate change litigation against Total, the tribunal ruled in favour of the 5 NGOs and 14 local authorities by confirming its jurisdiction, rejecting the oil major’s attempt to bring the dispute before the commercial court.

On 28 January 2020, fourteen French local authorities [1] and 5 organisations (Notre Affaire à Tous, Sherpa, Eco Maires, France Nature Environnement and ZEA) sued Total because of the inadequacy of its climate commitments with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. They request the judge to order the company to take adequate measures to prevent the risks arising from its activities, by drastically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Without replying on the merits, Total challenged the tribunal’s jurisdiction and requested that the dispute be brought before the commercial court, an exceptional court composed of company directors. 

In an order issued today, the pre-trial judge rejected Total’s objection and decided in favour of the organisations and local authorities, confirming its jurisdiction to rule on their claims. The judge considers that, as “non-traders”, they have “a right of option, which they can exercise at their convenience, between the judicial court and the commercial court”. 

Far from ruling on a strictly procedural point, the order recalls that the duty of vigilance “is Total’s social responsibility” and that “the letter” of the Commercial Code provisions relating to the duty of vigilance “calls for judicial review”. This decision is a first victory in this historic lawsuit against Total and contradicts previous decisions handed down in summary proceedings in the case concerning Total’s projects in Uganda. 

The organisations and local authorities now hope that, given the acceleration of global warming and the urgent need to emerge from the fossil age, a decision on the merits of the case will be reached as soon as possible.  

For Sébastien Mabile and François de Cambiaire, counsel for the organisations and local authorities, “this is a first decisive victory, as the judge has recognised the specific nature of the duty of vigilance and the need for judicial review.”  

For Paul Mougeolle of Notre Affaire à Tous, “as the judge has just recognised the French State’s share of responsibility for climate change in the ‘Affaire du Siècle’, this new decision confirms that French courts are fully competent to control the behaviour of the most polluting companies, such as Total.”

For Sandra Cossart of Sherpa, “the judge recognises that, although the duty of vigilance is intended to have an impact on the company’s decisions and activities, by its very nature this obligation affects “society as a whole”. While Total sought to reduce the duty of vigilance to a question of commercial management, the judge clearly recalls the legislator’s intention.”

[1] Arcueil, Bayonne, Bègles, Bize-Minervois, Centre Val de Loire, Correns, Est-Ensemble Grand Paris, Grenoble, La Possession, Mouans-Sartoux, Nanterre, Sevran and Vitry-le-François.

Last modified: 2 December 2021