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The court case

Hugues Falys, a farmer in the Belgian province of Hainaut, is suing TotalEnergies for its responsibility in climate change.

It is a groundbreaking case: never before has a multinational been brought before a Belgian court for this reason

A peasant and farmer for around 30 years, Hugues is bearing the full brunt of the effects of climate change. His farm, located in Lessines, has suffered a number of extreme weather events, including heatwaves and droughts. The result: major losses, extra workload, constant stress and immense worry for the years to come.  

That is why Hugues has decided to take legal action against a multinational that is contributing to climate change: TotalEnergies. TotalEnergies is one of the companies that emits the most greenhouse gases in the world.

Hugues dans son champ

Through his action, Hugues is asking the court to demand TotalEnergies to repair the damage he has suffered and make a financial contribution to the green transition. He is also asking judges to oblige the company to move away from fossil fuels in order to prevent future damage. 

Why go to court?

We are in a climate emergency. The decade 2020-2030 has been defined as “critical” by the IPCC for taking the necessary measures to stay below the 1.5°C limit. This threshold marks a firm commitment made by States at the time of the Paris Agreement. 

But this commitment is not currently fulfilled: despite repeated warnings from scientists, global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions continue to break records. The gap between needs and prospects for reducing emissions continues to widen. Not least because governments and multinationals are hiding behind a degree of legal uncertainty surrounding these issues.

Governments and multinationals are responsible for this inaction. To combat climate change and compensate for the inaction of governments and the private sector, citizens and civil society groups are increasingly turning to courts. That is also our ambition with this case.

8 out of 10 farmers in Wallonia are experiencing difficulties due to the weather

CBC Observatory

Survey conducted by IPSOS among 300 Walloon farmers between June 16 and 23, 2023.

What are the objectives of the action?

This legal action has three objectives: 

1.To obtain recognition of the damage suffered by the farmer

The first objective of this action is to obtain recognition of the damage suffered by the farmer as a result of climate breakdown, with compensation being one of the means to achieve such recognition. Extreme weather events, in particular heatwaves, droughts and extreme rainfall, have had a severe impact on Hugues’ farm yields. Crops have been repeatedly affected by these events, forcing him to buy feed elsewhere for his cows and to also reduce his herd to adapt to reduced forage production. 

Hugues is obviously not the only farmer to suffer from climate change. According to a survey published in July 2023, 8 out of 10 farmers in the Wallonia region are experiencing problems as a result of climate change: the impact on crops and livestock is worrying and is undermining our food sovereignty as well as food relocation projects, which aim to produce here what we buy at the other end of the world. The aim of this legal action is therefore also to support farmers, who are bearing the full brunt of this disruption. 

If Hugues wins compensation for the damage he has suffered, he will donate the entire sum to Farm for Good, an association of farms aiming to promote agro-ecology. He does not wish to make any personal profit from the action. What matters to Hugues, his driving force, is to continue to encourage the agro-ecological transition and ensure that climate change is recognised as having a serious impact on agriculture and farmers.

2. To force TotalEnergies to move away from fossil fuels

Coal, oil and gas companies are by far the biggest contributors to climate change, with fossil fuels responsible for over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions.

We are calling on the court to force TotalEmergies to move away from fossil fuels by adopting a credible transition plan that sets out and implements the following three points: 

Oil production-47%-75%-90 %
Gas production-47%-75%-85%
Combined oil and gas production-47%-75%-88%

These oil and gas production reduction targets are based on the Production Gap Report (2023), a report produced by the UN among others. The figures are based on the IMP-LD scenario (Illustrative Mitigation Pathway – Low Demand), selected as the most credible by Hugues and the organisations. It makes it possible to keep global warming to 1.5°C, all while avoiding the need for future carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Most of these technologies are still in the development phase. They have yet to prove their viability and effectiveness. Moreover, their large-scale deployment entails numerous risks for human rights and ecosystems.

3. To end impunity for the fossil fuel industry

When it comes to human rights and the environment, impunity is all too often the rule, particularly when it comes to multinationals. It is easy for these big companies to relocate their activities and take advantage of weaknesses in national laws. The principles do exist, however, notably in international law – but there is as yet no specific structure to monitor them. 

As a result, the major oil and gas companies escape responsibility. They are also generally exempt from any climate constraints. This allows them to remain in control of their “transition”, its nature and pace, and above all to continue reaping huge profits. 

As for governments, they are still struggling to adopt strong enough legislation to effectively protect the environment, the climate and human rights. What is more, some are going against common sense by continuing to subsidise the fossil fuel industry. This is the case in Belgium.  

A just transition is urgently needed. To move the lines, we are calling for justice and redress before the courts and demanding that companies be held responsible for the damage they cause. This action is part of the See You In Court project, coordinated by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and aiming to hold companies accountable when their activities violate human rights and harm the environment.