Climate activists say BNP Paribas is violating a French law meant to reduce environmental risks.
Groups are using lawsuits to try and force companies to move away from fossil fuels faster.
BNP Paribas defended its plan to exit the fossil-fuel sector and have a net-zero portfolio by 2050.
Three climate-activist groups on Thursday sued the bank BNP Paribas over its fossil-fuel financing, saying it violated a French law requiring companies to prevent risks to the environment.
The case marks the first climate lawsuit against a commercial bank and comes as activists increasingly use the courts to try and force big companies to transition to a low-carbon way of operating.
Previous targets have included oil majors like Shell, which in 2021 was ordered by a Dutch court to step up its efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 45% this decade. Shell appealed the decision last year. TotalEnergies, a French oil company, has also been sued over its climate strategy and oil projects in East Africa.
“BNP is a big funder of the expansion of fossil-fuel projects,” Justine Ripoll, a campaigner at the climate-activist group Notre Affaire à Tous, which filed the lawsuit along with Oxfam and Friends of the Earth, told Insider. “Oil majors are developing and creating new oil and gas projects all around the world, and BNP Paribas continues to offer financial services like general investment and underwriting new stock.”
BNP Paribas is a top financier of fossil-fuel production in Europe and ranks 10th in the world, providing about $142 billion to the sector since the Paris climate agreement took effect in 2016, according to an analysis by the Rainforest Action Network. BNP Paribas’ outstanding loans for fossil fuels amount to 23.7 billion euros as of the end of September, the bank said in a statement last month. BNP Paribas has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its portfolio by 2050.
Astrid Sancho, a spokesperson for BNP Paribas, told Insider in an email that the bank regretted that the non-governmental organizations chose to engage in litigation rather than dialogue.
“We are focused on our fossil fuel exit path, accelerating financing for renewable energies and supporting our customers, without whom the transition cannot be made,” Sancho said.
She added that about a decade ago, 95% of the bank’s outstanding financing for energy production was in fossil fuels. Now, she said, more than half is “oriented towards low carbon energies,” and the bank hopes to hit 80% by 2030.
Climate activists say that pledges made in recent years by BNP Paribas and other banks to limit support of oil and gas are rife with loopholes. For example, BNP Paribas does not directly finance oil projects, but the bank continues to offer corporate financing to its energy-firm clients that are advancing them, the groups filing suit argue.
Ripoll said BNP Paribas should adopt a policy requiring fossil-fuel companies to stop developing new projects. If they fail to do so in a certain time frame, BNP Paribas should divest from these companies, she said.
The International Energy Agency said in 2021 there should not be any investment in new fossil-fuel-supply projects to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. The threshold could avert the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis for people and the planet, scientists say.
It’s those impacts that make France a country where it’s easier to file climate lawsuits against corporations.
The country’s Duty of Vigilance law, enacted in 2017, requires large companies to identify risks to human rights and the environment and then prevent them. “We know climate has effects on both,” Ripoll said.
The European Union is considering a similar policy for the entire bloc.
In the US, climate lawsuits against oil majors are slightly different, in that they accuse the companies of misleading the public about the dangers of the climate crisis and seek compensation for the costs of building infrastructure that’s more resilient to natural disasters.
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