‘Blank cheques’: Environmental groups sue BNP Paribas over fossil-fuel lending

Three climate-minded organizations are set on Thursday to sue BNP Paribas, the eurozone's biggest bank.
Three climate-minded organizations are set on Thursday to sue BNP Paribas, the eurozone's biggest bank. Copyright Left: Reuters, Right: Canva
By Charlotte Elton with Reuters
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Three environmental groups are suing the eurozone’s largest bank over its loans to oil and gas companies.

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Three environmental organisations are suing BNP Paribas, the eurozone's biggest bank, for its financing of fossil fuel polluters.

The three advocacy groups - Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and Notre Affaire à Tous - claim that BNP Paribas’ loans to oil and gas majors breach a legally binding duty to ensure its activities do not harm the planet.

The lawsuit marks the first time a commercial bank has been sued over its fossil fuel lending.

"BNP Paribas continues to write new blank cheques to the largest fossil fuel companies without setting any conditions for an oil-free, gas-free ecological transition," said Alexandre Poidatz, advocacy officer at Oxfam France.

Why are environmental groups suing BNP Paribas?

To prevent catastrophic global heating, society must rapidly decarbonise.

According to the GLOBAL Carbon project, we have 380 billion tonnes of CO2 left in the global carbon budget.

This is the amount of carbon dioxide we can release and still have a 50 per cent chance of avoiding 1.5 degrees of warming.

Global greenhouse gas emissions reached 58 billion tonnes in 2022 alone - largely driven by fossil fuel extraction and consumption.

Legal activism is an increasingly popular move for campaigners as they seek to push companies to move faster in the shift to a low-carbon economy and to hold laggards to account.

The case against BNP is part of a number of legal attacks taking place, targeting different laws and organisations ranging from Air France-KLM's Dutch branch to Shell, TotalEnergies and even the French state.

Canva
In order to prevent catastrophic global heating, society needs to rapidly decarbonise.Canva

Does France require companies to identify environmental risk?

The case is based on a French law adopted in 2017 that requires companies to draft so-called environmental damage vigilance plans. No court in France has yet forced a firm to change its ways on the basis of this law.

A much-awaited ruling in a similar case against TotalEnergies - a top banking client of BNP's - is expected early next week.

The three NGOs said their legal approach against BNP is modelled after a historic lawsuit in the Netherlands against Shell, which in 2021 was forced by a Dutch court to drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its global operations to be brought in line with science-based climate assessments.

The groups claim that while BNP does not directly finance such projects, its general extension of credit allows it to make climate-friendly claims, such as joining the Net Zero Banking Alliance, while continuing to support potentially damaging projects via its banking clients.

In a statement sent to Reuters, BNP said that it could not stop all fossil-fuel financing right away.

"We're convinced that the ecological transition is the only viable path for the future of our economies," it said.

"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."

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