• A law adopted in France in February 2017 introduces a "duty of vigilance" to certain French multinationals. It requires them to identify and prevent social and environmental risks caused by their activities.
  • Several oil and agri-food groups have since been attacked by NGOs for breaches of this duty on the climate front. This Thursday, BNP Paribas joins the list, sued by three NGOs.
  • While BNP Paribas describes itself as a leader in financing the energy transition, these NGOs point to the bank's support for companies that continue to develop fossil fuel projects.

Total for its Tilenga and EACOP oil projects in Africa. Casino for its role in deforestation in the Amazon. Or, more recently, Danone for its management of its plastic pollution... Environmental NGOs have not failed to take advantage of the "duty of vigilance", a foundation introduced by a February 2017 law into French law. It obliges certain French multinationals to identify and prevent the risks of serious environmental damage caused by their own activities and those of their subsidiaries, in France and abroad. And expose them to legal action in case of breaches found.

The list of companies attacked is still growing this Thursday since Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and Notre Affaire à tous are suing BNP Paribas before the Paris judicial court.

A world first?

On 26 October, they began by giving formal notice to the first European bank* to comply with its due diligence obligations. But the response of the banking group, sent at the end of January, did not convince, so they move to the next stage this Thursday. "This is the first time that a bank has been attacked on the basis of due diligence, but it is also the world's first climate dispute against a commercial bank," said Lorette Philippot, private finance campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

The three NGOs did not target BNP Paribas by chance. "Between 2016 and 2021, it was the first bank in Europe - and the fifth worldwide - to finance the development of fossil fuels," says Lorette Philippot. It was also the world's leading funder of the eight European and American oil and gas majors (Total, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, etc.), which continue to develop new fossil fuel projects. This support does not go down well for these three NGOs, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), joined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in May 2021, calls for the immediate abandonment of any new fossil fuel project if we want to limit global warming below 1.5 ° C*.

"A proven leader in financing the energy transition", BNP describes itself

On the BNP Paribas side, the discourse is quite different. In a press release on January 24, the bank presents itself as a strong leader in the financing of the energy transition, and even said "engage in a new stage of strong acceleration" in this direction. The banking group recalls being on "an already very advanced exit from coal". It aims to completely stop financing companies in the sector by 2030 in the EU, and 2040 for the rest of the world.

BNP also says it has initiated an exit from oil. The group says it has stopped financing projects since 2016 and is committed, by 2030, to reduce by 80% the outstanding amount of financing for oil extraction and production. This is the total amount of credits granted on these activities that have not yet been repaid in 2030. From the current €5 billion, the incur would rise to one billion.

Finally, on natural gas, BNP Paribas aims to reduce its financing by more than 30% by 2030 and says it will now reserve its financing in this sector for new-generation thermal power plants, which emit low greenhouse gases, and for securing supplies**.

Commitments to read between the lines

Not bad? Alexandre Poidatz, Advocacy Officer at Oxfam, invites you to read between the lines. "On oil and gas, commitments are essentially limited to outstandings," he points out. This makes it possible to set aside a whole range of financing granted by BNP Paribas to companies in the sector. It does not include, for example, support for the issuance of shares and bonds that it provides to oil and gas companies. For the latter, it is a way - increasingly important - to find new funding that can then go, potentially, to their fossil projects. »

Above all, the stakes are not limited to financing and aid. "Through the key role they play, in particular BNP, they have a major power of influence to put their clients on the path of transition," says Alexandre Poidatz. BNP Paribas is doing it on coal. Since 2020, it has committed to excluding companies that do not have a coal phase-out date from its customers. But it has no similar requirements on oil and gas. »

The beginning of a long affair?

This is then one of the demands of Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and Notre Affaire à tous: that BNP Paribas' demands on coal be duplicated on the other two fossil fuels. They also want the court to force the bank to "immediately stop all financial support – financing and investment – to companies that develop new fossil fuel projects". "We are not asking for money," says François de Cambiaire, a lawyer at Seattle Avocat, which advises NGOs in this case. But simply that BNP applies the law on the duty of vigilance by ensuring that its activities are well aligned with the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5 ° C. "

This Wednesday should mark in any case the beginning of a long legal battle, "probably several years, expects Lorette Philippot. In previous climate disputes, we have always seen multinationals or targeted countries playing for time."

* In terms of assets owned.

** The first goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.

** Gas transport infrastructure (terminals, LNG carriers, etc.)

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