Legal Action over Fossil Fuel Financing

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    Stockholm (NordSIP) – Court litigation is quickly becoming a powerful tool to ensure that the main actors in the climate crisis are held accountable and forced to comply with the climate objectives set on an international, national and company level. On 23 February, three French non-profit organisations, Oxfam France, Friends of the Earth France, and Notre Affaire à Tous, initiated the first climate dispute in the world, attempting to force a commercial bank to comply with its legal duties. They are taking French bank BNP Paribas to court for allegedly failing to comply with France’s duty of vigilance law regarding climate change. “We demand that the bank cease to support the development of fossil fuels and adapt its activities in order to comply with the objectives established during the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” write the NGOs in a joint statement.

    The three organisations initiated the process in October last year, issuing a formal notice to BNP to adopt reasonable and appropriate climate vigilance measures, to be integrated into a new vigilance plan and implemented promptly. In the absence of a satisfactory response from BNP[1], the associations turned to the legal system and summoned the multinational company to appear before the Paris Court of Justice. “The French law aims to exert strict judicial control on the company’s compliance with its duty of vigilance and to assess the appropriateness of the measures taken,” comments François de Cambiaire, a partner at Seattle Avocats, in Oxfam International’s press release. “The court will rely on UN and OECD guidelines, which define specific due diligence measures regarding the activities the bank supports through its investments and financing efforts. This can go as far as the cessation of the activity causing the damage, and even divestment,” he adds.

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    There is a reason why the NGOs decided to target BNP in particular. According to them, the French bank has become Europe’s leading funder of the development of fossil fuels and the world’s fifth largest one, with financing worth USD 55 billion granted between 2016 and 2021. They also point out that BNP massively supports the majors of the fossil fuel sector, like Total, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ENI, Repsol, and Equinor. In addition, the bank is the world’s leading financier of Arctic and offshore oil and gas drilling.

    Providing further incentives for the NGOs to take BNP to court is what they perceive as blatant attempts at greenwashing or at least greenwishing. They note that over the past few years, BNP has repeatedly been making announcements on new climate commitments, such as stating it would comply with the Paris Agreement and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and developing several sector-based policies to limit its support to fossil fuels. However, the NGOs deem the proposed measures far too limited and ineffective in the face of the climate emergency.

    “BNP Paribas is trying to play down the role its financing and investment activities have played in the worsening of climate change and to continue business as usual,” state the NGOs. “This is a cynical and dangerous stance on the part of an institution that not only has a systemic responsibility — as the largest bank in the eurozone, it can have a true impact in either accelerating or slowing down the transition — but also a historical responsibility, having played a major role in building and maintaining Europe’s (and the world’s) dependence on fossil fuels, even as the serious consequences became undeniable.”

    The organisations now call for more people to join the 50,000 who have already signed the international petition in support of the BNP case to make their voices heard in this unprecedented trial and to ask for the end of financial support for new fossil fuel projects.

    The Paris Judicial Court will propose a schedule for the next steps in the proceedings. Watch this space.

    [1] The bank did issue a public statement on 24 January, which, according to the NGOs, did not address the issues that they raise in a satisfactory manner.

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