A climate lawsuit filed against BNP Paribas in the French courts could instigate a wave of fresh litigation from civil actors against other banks and corporates deemed to have failed in their environmental responsibilities.

In February, NGOs Friends of the Earth France, Notre Affaire à Tous and Oxfam France filed a lawsuit in Paris claiming that the bank had failed to comply with France’s corporate duty of vigilance law because it had not required its oil and gas clients to stop developing new fossil fuel projects and begin to exit the sector.

Julien Visconti, partner at law firm Visconti & Grundler, tells GTR that this is “just the beginning of massive ESG litigation in France”, though he does not think the case against BNP Paribas is particularly strong in itself.

France’s corporate duty of vigilance law requires French-domiciled companies to prevent and remedy harmful impacts on the environment resulting from their activities and those of businesses in their value chains.

Among the potential objections to the BNP Paribas case, Visconti notes that “fossil fuels industries are not forbidden by law. The claimants must prove that the general activity of these industries – and not a specific example – creates a ‘serious violation to the environment’.”

If it does, Visconti notes that the French lender itself “is not the direct cause of the violation”.

“BNP Paribas is a supplier to the fossil fuel sector, and the activity of financing is not explicitly targeted by law,” he says, adding that the law targets “the company that creates the violation, its main suppliers and subcontractors, but not its clients”.

Visconti says that it remains to be seen how judges will respond to the law, as there has been only one judgement to date.

In that case, the claim brought by a group of NGOs against TotalEnergies for its part in the human and environmental rights impacts caused by the East African Crude Oil Pipeline – a 1,443km heated pipeline set to transport oil through Uganda and Tanzania – was ruled inadmissible by a French court on February 28.

“This judgement is interesting because not only did the judges dismiss the claim on procedural grounds, but they also expressed that the law was difficult to enforce,” Visconti says.

The judgement explains that while the legislation “assigns monumental goals for the protection of human rights and the environment to certain categories of companies, minimally specifying the means that must be implemented to achieve them”, it does not stipulate any guiding principles or international standards.

Dan Hyde, senior associate at Peters & Peters, notes that while France has a specific law designed to prevent and mitigate environmental risks within companies and their supply chains, other countries do not have such robust measures in place. In the UK for instance, the legislation is, he says, “minimal and piecemeal”.

Yet Hyde adds that there has been “a notable uptick of action by various UK authorities in their fight against ‘greenwashing’” recently, including claims being brought against companies using existing mechanisms in English law.

“These types of actions are only likely to proliferate in the future, especially given the English courts’ recent emphasis that the common law will be adaptable and be able to rise to the challenge of climate or greenwashing litigation,” he says.

“These developments on the UK legal horizon mean corporates that rest on their laurels and leave supply chain diligence too late may well find themselves at the sharp end of litigation or at the very least faced with strong public and investor disapprobation,” Hyde adds.

International co-operation on the issue is also growing, with California currently considering a resolution to formally endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Already endorsed by a bloc of Pacific nations, the European Parliament and 80 cities and subnational governments, the treaty would put a stop to new coal, oil or gas exploration or production.