In a ruling hailed as "historic" by environmental activists, France's top administrative court on Thursday gave the government a three-month deadline to show it is taking action to meet its commitments on global warming.
The French government, which brokered the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, was hauled before the Council of State by Grande-Synthe, a low-lying northern coastal town that is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change.
The Council, which rules on disputes over public policies, said that "while France has committed itself to reducing its emissions by 40 percent in 2030 compared to 1990 levels, it has, in recent years, regularly exceeded the 'carbon budgets' it had set itself."
It also noted that President Emmanuel Macron's government had, in an April decree, at the height of the first wave of Covid-19 infections, deferred much of the reduction efforts beyond 2020.
Before issuing a final ruling on the matter, the Council gave the government three months to justify "how its refusal to take additional measures is compatible with the respect of the reduction path chosen in order to achieve the targets set for 2030."
Corinne Lepage, a former environment minister and a lawyer for the town of Grande-Synthe, hailed the decision as "historic".
The ruling means that "policies must be more than nice commitments on paper," she said.
- Far off track -
Despite Macron's headline 2017 promise to "make our planet great again" -- a swipe at global-warming denier US President Donald Trump and his pledge to "make America great again" -- France is far off track to meet its commitments under the 2015 treaty.
France's High Council on Climate, an independent body tasked with advising the government on how to reduce carbon emissions, said in a report this year that emissions had fallen by only 0.9 percent in 2019.
That left France "far from the 3 percent annual reduction expected from 2025 onwards to remain on track for carbon neutrality," it said.
In January 2019, Damien Careme, then the Greens mayor of Grande-Synthe, petitioned the Council of State over what he called the government's "climate inaction".
Careme said his town of 23,000 people, which is built on land reclaimed from the sea, risked being flooded by rising ocean levels.
The town's case was backed by the cities of Paris and Grenoble, as well as several environmental NGOs including Oxfam France, Greenpeace France and L'Affaire du Siecle (The Case of the Century).
Welcoming Thursday's decision, Greenpeace and L'Affaire du Siecle called it a "historic breakthrough for the environment", noting that France's climate objectives, and its path to achieving them, had "become binding".
Macron's centrist government did not immediately react to the ruling.
In 2018, the popular climate campaigner Nicolas Hulot quit as Maron's environment minister over what he saw as the president's failure to aggressively pursue green initiatives.
- Climate justice -
The case is the latest in a series taken by climate campaigners against governments worldwide.
In a rare move for the Council of State, reflecting the global interest in the issue, it published its decision in both French and English.
The ruling comes as activists warn that the decline in emissions seen in many big economies in 2019 risked being negated by new investments in fossil fuels in countries aiming to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2020 Climate Transparency Report, compiled by 14 think-tanks and NGOs, said that "by providing unconditional support to fossil fuels, governments recovery responses risk reversing, instead of locking in, positive pre-Covid trends."