Paris could become the first city in Europe to try to defray the cost of climate change by taking fossil fuel companies to court.

The City Council passed a resolution this week to examine suing oil and gas companies to pay for the costs of climate impacts. It also wants to explore lobbying other major cities to pull their investments from fossil fuel producers, which have historically generated good returns for investors.

In its resolution, Paris cited New York City as one of its inspirations for considering more aggressive actions to build momentum toward reaching the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. That agreement was signed in 2015, with nearly 200 countries agreeing to hold global warming within 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times.

Last month, New York City announced it was suing five major oil companies in federal court and developing a plan to divest the $5 billion its pension funds have invested in fossil fuel businesses. The lawsuit seeks billions of dollars from oil companies including ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips to help pay for construction projects designed to protect the city from rising seas and extreme weather.

The city is already gradually rolling out projects that are part of a grand, $20 billion plan announced in 2013 to prepare New York City for climate change impacts, such as building flood-control walls and requiring utilities to improve their ability to restore power quickly after a big storm.

Paris, which experienced major floods—including one just a week ago that had curators moving art out of the lower levels of the Louvre—and heat waves in recent years, is in the early stages of exploring a potential lawsuit against oil and gas companies. The City Council will now wait for the city’s attorneys to make their recommendations, said a city government official.

There doesn’t appear to be a deadline for making a decision.

It’s great to see Paris joining this movement and helping the city to strengthen its climate resilience,” said Maxime Beaugrand, a French lawyer and a law fellow with the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, a nonprofit advocacy group that works on environmental legal issues around the world. “Paris is taking a leadership role in Europe.”

Other advocacy groups had been working to bring liability cases to Europe.

It’s fantastic news that cities like New York and Paris are stepping up to protect their citizens and hold fossil fuel corporations accountable for the harm they cause,” Clémence Dubois, a campaigner in France for the advocacy group, said in a statement. Paris’s resolution cited the group for its mission to nudge public and private organizations toward divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Paris could be the first city in Europe to go after fossil fuel companies if it decides to sue, said Sophie Marjanac, an attorney of the climate litigation team at ClientEarth, a London-based legal advocacy group.

A climate lawsuit from Paris would land in a French court, not a European Union court, since the EU lacks the tort law to provide a good legal avenue for this type of case, Marjanac noted. Tort law allows individuals or organizations to sue for harm they suffered.

If Paris does file a suit, it would face similar hurdles as New York City and other communities that are taking oil and gas companies to court, including proving that any individual fossil fuel company directly caused the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and super storms, that devastated local communities, Marjanac said.

In some of the previous cases in the United States and elsewhere, oil and gas companies successfully argued that they couldn’t be held responsible for climate impacts when global warming is a complex problem caused by so many other businesses and people.

That argument may start to lose steam, however. In Germany, a regional court in November reversed a lower court decision and agreed to hear a  case filed by Saul Luciano Lluiya, who sued utility giant RWE in 2015 for the power company’s role in a glacier melt that increased the likelihood of floods in his city of Huaraz, Peru.

The case is groundbreaking for seeking to hold a major contributor of carbon emissions responsible for the impact of climate change, regardless of where the impact is taking place. RWE doesn’t operate in Peru.

That was a significant finding by the court that a German company can cause harm outside of Germany,” Marjanac said.

Legal experts often cite a lawsuit in the Netherlands as the best case law for recognizing the connection between emissions and climate change. In Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands, the court said in 2015 the government must cut the country’s emissions more aggressively because the Netherlands shared the blame for the rising global temperatures, even if its carbon footprint wasn’t as great as other countries’.

New York City isn’t the first American city to file climate lawsuits against oil and gas companies. Seven other cities and counties, all in California, have filed similar lawsuits. Los Angeles and Boulder in Colorado have talked about doing the same.

Ucilia Wang

First published by Climate Liability News, 9 February 2018