Not only in Germany, but also in France, environmentalists are increasingly trying to drag corporations to court for allegedly insufficient climate protection efforts. With BNP Paribas, a prominent financial services provider and at the same time the largest commercial bank in the Eurozone is now under attack.

Niklas Záboji

Business correspondent in Paris

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On Thursday, the left-wing associations Notre affaire à tous, Oxfam and Les Amis de la Terre announced that they had sued the bank for violating due diligence, ecological damage and non-compliance with its voluntary obligations in France. It is the "world's largest financier of the eight largest European and North American oil and gas companies," they write, referring to a study by other environmentalists.

Notre affaire à tous, Oxfam and Les Amis de la Terre have so far called in vain on BNP to stop financing new fossil energy projects and adopt a plan to phase out oil and gas. They call their lawsuit "historic" because it is the world's first "climate dispute" directed against a commercial bank. According to the newspaper "Le Monde", the clubs refer to a French law that imposes greater due diligence obligations on corporations after a factory accident in Bangladesh in 2017.

The bank defends itself offensively against the allegations. "You can't say that BNP Paribas is now the largest European financier of fossil energy projects, based on the data compiled by the three (non-governmental organizations) covering a very long period from 2016 to 2021," says Antoine Sire, Head of Company Engagement on the BNP board, in an interview with the F.A.Z. Moreover, Notre affaire à tous, Oxfam and Les Amis de la Terre do not take into account the "downward path" to which they have committed themselves.

"Most advanced international bank"

"We already have more low-carbon and renewable projects in our portfolio than fossil fuels," explains Sire. Within ten years, BNP has shifted its lending to the energy sector from nearly 100 percent fossil fuels to 55 percent low-carbon energy, mainly renewables. By 2030, it should be more than 80 percent.

Indeed, at the end of September, BNP had €28.2 billion in loans for "low-carbon energy," of which €24.8 billion was for renewables, €0.3 billion for biofuels and the remaining €3.1 billion for nuclear. This was offset by a loan volume for fossil energies of 23.7 billion euros, of which 17.1 billion euros were for oil and 5.3 billion euros for gas activities and the remaining 1.3 billion euros for coal, from which BNP wants to exit by 2030.

BNP sees itself as the "most advanced international bank" in this area. In general, however, only 4 percent of all loans go to the energy sector, Sire points out, adding: "We have a lively dialogue with (NGOs), but we were not contacted by Notre affaire à tous, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth before they filed a lawsuit."

Asked about the BNP case, Thomas Buberl, head of the French insurance group Axa, underlined on Thursday the need for the major economic players to make their contribution to the ecological transition – and to accompany customers. As a financier and insurer of energy projects, he "started early" and constantly measures the progress achieved.

Axa has set itself the goal of investing 26 billion euros in "green" investments by the end of this year. He also finances nuclear projects, but is not part of them. Axa wants to phase out coal by 2040.