The Law, driver of environmental transition

By regulating human activities, the law is a powerful driver of societal changes. In a background where we need to keep up and intensify efforts towards an ecological and climate transition, what role can the justice system play?

The need for large-scale climate action becomes more and more urgent. In this context, it seems fondamental to mobilise any available lever to an effective transition of our societies. To Marta Torre-Schaub, environmental law specialist at the Sorbonne’s Institut des Sciences Juridique et Philosophique, “the law is a key player in the ecological transition, since it sets the judicial framework that must be respected”. Because of the transversality of environmental issues, laws listed in the environmental code affect extremely diverse areas (transport, urban planning, waste management, industry…), holding thus a major influence.

Laws evolve through time to tag along necessary societal changes and, to the researcher, the current texts keep considerable room for improvement: “Some penalties or incentives are not meeting the challenges needed to change the habits of private actors or consumers” she states. Beyond the improvement of laws itself, there is one problem slowing the pace of progress: their application. Marta Torre-Schaub warns that “we cannot say the enforcement of environmental law is living up to the urgency of ecological and climate stakes”. The means and environmental inspectors are not sufficient to ensure the examination of industrial standards in place.

A powerful tool for citizens

How can we ensure the enforcement of existing laws and the respect of commitments taken by governments? To address this issue, the law offers a way to confront organisms, public or private, in regards to their obligations. Fortified by reports and recommendations from expert organisations like the High Council for Climate, legal action is a popular means of action for environmental associations.

Even if these actions are common since the 1970s for the conservation of ecosystems, Marta Torre-Schaub notes that today “associations have taken up these tools in a slightly more advanced way, including at a local scale”. In the 2000’s, this type of procedure opened up to the urgency of climate change, first in the USA and Australia and then in Europe with the Urgenda Climate Case in 2015. To her, this event truly gave an impetus: “Since Urgenda, there has been a real rise in legal actions”. And for a good reason, as these attempts have tangible impacts on the policies of countries involved. “Some can get the fight against climate change moving forward solely because judges underline the obligations of administrations or materialise the ones public authorities had not yet included” states Marta Torre Schaub. “In France, some emphasise in particular on the calendar of CO2 emissions reductions target to which the government has committed”.

By Marion Barbé for IPSL