The role of the judiciary in balancing the growth of renewable energy and the protection of the species : European Union and French case law


2022 Oslo (3rd) International Environmental Law Conference: "The Transformative Power of Law: Addressing Global Environmental Challenges"

University of Oslo, Faculty of Law, Karl Johans gate 47, Oslo, Norway October 3-6, 2022


In line with international commitments[1], the European Union is putting effective and responsible sustainable development at the core of its policy design and legal framework.

On one hand, in order to reach climate neutrality by 2050, the EU has set an ambitious objective of 40 % renewable energy in its energy "mix" by 2030. On the other hand, in May 2020 the EU set the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 which tackles biodiversity loss.

However, renewable energy projects such as onshore and offshore wind infrastructure as well as solar panels that are vital for society and fighting climate change could harm protected species and their habitats causing alteration, destruction or birds scaring. That is why granting a derogation of protected species and habitats is strictly controlled by the judge.

The question of whether or under what circumstances the destruction of species listed as strictly protected in the Habitats Directive can be allowed has been the subject of extensive controversy and litigation in several Member States, especially in France.

The main issue is how the EU and French courts balance both sustainable development objectives which are the growth of renewable energy and the protection of the species.

I. Legal Framework for the special protection of species and derogation

The objective of the Habitat directive is to contribute towards ensuring biodiversity through the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (article 2).

The capture, killing destruction, or deterioration of animals or cutting plant species are prohibited by articles 12 and 13 of the Habitat Directive. It is a strict protection.

The only circumstances in which the deliberate taking or killing of species protected is permitted are when Member states grant a derogation under Articles 6 and 16 of the Habitats Directive[2] or Article 9 of the Birds Directive[3].

The French implementation of those provisions is article L411-1 et L411-2 Environmental code.

II. The strict control of the necessary application to the protected species derogation by the judge

There is strict control of the necessary application to the protected species derogation by the ECJ and French Courts.

No threshold was set by the ECJ in the case ECJ, 4 March 2021, C-473/19) [4]:, therefore the French administrative Court of appeal has set the threshold in several cases:

  • According to the Administrative court of appeal findings, the derogation is necessary when the risks are low (CAA Bordeaux, March 9th, 2021 n°19BX03522) or when there is knowledge of the risk.
  • However, the derogation is not necessary when:
  • the risk is not demonstrated
  • The risk of the destruction of sensitive individuals or habitats (for the chiropterans for example) is not sufficiently high, see the case below:
  • CAA Bordeaux February 23, 2021, n°18BX04269
  • CAA Nantes April 2nd 2021, n° 20NT0051
  • CAA Nancy, 26 January 2021, 20NC00876 (this solution is more balance. 1 Red kite and 1 Common crane have been observed in the area around the wind turbines and the judge said that the risk not sufficiently high.

III. Three cumulative conditions for granting a derogation

Furthermore, There are 3 conditions for granting the derogation :

· First, The project has to meet an imperative reason of overriding public interest (IROPI);

· Second, There is no satisfactory alternative solution;

· Third, The species are maintained in favorable conservation status.

The ECJ and the French Administrative Supreme court both agree that the 3 conditions are cumulative for granting the derogation (ECJ, 10 oct. 2019, C-674-17 ; CE, 9 oct. 2013, n° 366803). If one condition is missing => the derogation won't be granted

However, the ECJ and French Courts don't apply these conditions in the same order. The ECJ analyse the no satisfactory alternative solution before the IROPI (ECJ 26 october 2006 Commission v Portugal, highway infrastructure project in Castro Verde, C-239/04) whereas the FrenchAdministrative Supreme court (Conseil d'Etat) has put the condition of "imperative reason of overriding public interest" in priority (CE, 3 juin 2020, n° 425395, Sté La Provençale, quarry project; CE 24 juillet 2019 n°414353 Val Tolosa shopping center)[5].

There is No Clear definition of the notion IROPI either by the ECJ[6] or French courts which is why careful balancing of interests is needed.

4. The Jurisdictional interpretation of the notion of "imperative reason of public interest"

The method of balancing an infrastructure project and the protection of biodiversity has been implemented by the ECJ in the Solvay Case in 2012 (CJUE, 16 févr. 2012, C-182/10, Solvay v. Région Wallonne)[7]. The judges apply the Principe of proportionality which means that "public interest" must be proportional to the damage of species. Serious harm of the species can only be justified by an overriding interest.

Since 2015, this method has been implemented by some French administrative courts in several cases (CAA Douai 15 octobre 2015, Ecologie pour le Havre, n°14DA02064; CAA Bordeaux 13 juillet 2017, SAS PCE, n°16BX01364; CAA Marseille 25 octobre 2016 15MA01400) and lately in 2020 by the Administrative Supreme Court (CE, 3 juin 2020, n° 425395, Société La Provençale)

From the case law Findings of the French administrative courts the judges decide on a case-by-case basis whether there is an overriding "public interest", depending on multiple criteria:

  • The projects must be « indispensable or exceptional ». this criteria has been set in 2013 by the CE but it is not often implemented by the judges because they didn't use the EU method of balancing btw the project interest and the protection of species
  • CE 9 octobre 2013, SEM Nièvre aménagement, n° 366803
  • CAA Marseille, 14 sept. 2018, n° 16MA02625 and 16MA02626
  • The project has to be in accordance with the European, national and regional objectives[8] .

For example, in 2022, the derogation has been granted for the Offshore wind infrastructure near Noirmoutier and Yeu Island because it's a 496 MW project that contribute to 8% of electric consumption of the region of Pays de la Loire (CE, 29 july 2022, n° 443420)

  • CE, 15 April 2021, n° 430500, Moulins du Lohan / Lanouée project : 16 or 17 wind turbines, more than 51 MW allowing the supply of electricity to more than 50,000 people (derogation granted)
  • CE 10 March 2022, n° 439784 : the judge didn't grant the derogation to the Avant-Mont wind power project because the 10 winds turbines with 30 MW of power only contribute to 1,5 % of the regional objectives

The judge may take into consideration Local circumstances as well :

  • CE, 15 April 2021, n° 430500: Moulins du Lohan / Lanouée wind project: the judge granted the derogation to a wind power project in Brittany due to the Fragility of the electricity supply in the region resulting from the low local production covering only 8% of the region's needs
  • CE, 15 April 2021, n° 432158: hydroelectric power station: annual production of 12 million kilowatt hours, equivalent to the electricity consumption of about 5,000 inhabitants. "The administrative court of appeal held that (...) the project could not be considered as contributing to the fulfilment of the State's commitments in the development of renewable energies".

The judge take into account the real or supposed risks of destruction of protected species and on the mitigation measures. A serious destruction of protected species cannot be justified by an overriding interest (CAA Douai, 15 oct. 2015, n° 14DA020641, brownfield land friche indust)


In conclusion, case law showed that although there is a form of casuistry, several improvements and contributions have been made by the judges to conciliate the protection of the species with the growth of renewable energy over the decades.

However, there are still grey areas surrounding the interpretation of the conditions by the judge. A clear and precise definition of "imperative reasons of overriding public interest" by the judge would be welcome.

So far in May 18th 2022, the European Commission has proposed in the context of its REpowerEU Plan to amend the directive on renewable energy so as to operationalize the principle of renewable energy as an overriding public interest and to introduce the designation of 'go-to' areas. The Commission also recommends rationalising the permitting process.

Overall my recommendations for companies or NGOs should have precise, solid, inventive arguments and case-by-case files because the judge has a broad analysis of the seriousness of the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project or those who oppose the project.


[1] Paris Agreement, April 22nd 2016, Bonn Convention on Migratory Species, November 1st 1983 , Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention), June 1st 1982, Biodiversity Convention, December 29 1993.

[2] Article 16 : A condition 1/ qu'il n'existe pas une autre solution satisfaisante et que 2) la dérogation ne nuise pas au maintien, dans un état de conservation favorable, des populations des espèces concernées dans leur aire de répartition naturelle, les États membres peuvent déroger aux dispositions des articles 12 , 13 , 14 et de l'article 15 points a ) et b ):

[3] Both directives require the Member States "to adopt a complete and effective legislative framework by the implementation of concrete and specific protection measures that must ensure effective compliance with the prohibitions intended, in essence, to protect the species, breeding sites and resting places of the birds" (CJUE, 4 mars 2021, C-473/19 et C-474/19, Föreningen Skydda Skogen; ECJ 17 April 2018, Commission v Poland (Białowieża Forest), C‑441/17)

[4] Article 16(1) of the Habitats Directive, which defines in a precise and exhaustive manner the circumstances in which Member States may derogate from Articles 12 to 14 and Article 15(a) and (b) thereof, constitutes an exception to the system of protection provided for by that directive, which must be interpreted restrictively (Pt 30)

  • The ECJ has a "High level of protection"
  • "Precautionary principle"
  • The protection also applies to species with a favorable conservation status and to foreseeable or accidental impacts

[5] « Les dispositions de l'article L. 411-2 doivent être interprétées comme signifiant « qu'un projet d'aménagement ou de construction d'une personne publique ou privée susceptible d'affecter la conservation d'espèces animales ou végétales protégées et de leurs habitats ne peut être autorisé, à titre dérogatoire, que s'il répond, par sa nature et compte tenu des intérêts économiques et sociaux en jeu, tels que notamment le projet urbain dans lequel il s'inscrit, à une raison impérative d'intérêt public majeur. En présence d'un tel intérêt, le projet ne peut cependant être autorisé, eu égard aux atteintes portées aux espèces protégées appréciées en tenant compte des mesures de réduction et de compensation prévues, que si, d'une part, il n'existe pas d'autre solution satisfaisante et, d'autre part, cette dérogation ne nuit pas au maintien, dans un état de conservation favorable, des popula- tions des espèces concernées dans leur aire de répartition naturelle »

Article 16 A condition qu'il n'existe pas une autre solution satisfaisante et que la dérogation ne nuise pas au maintien , dans un état de conservation favorable, des populations des espèces concernées dans leur aire de répartition naturelle, les États membres peuvent déroger aux dispositions des articles 12 , 13 , 14 et de l'article 15 points a ) et b ):

[6] CJUE 24 nov. 2011, Commission c/ Royaume d'Espagne, C-404/09 : L'importance d'une activité privée pour 'économie locale peut constituer un intérêt public majeur au sens de la directive

[7] Ces décisions portent sur des projets en site Natura 2000. Les dérogations au titre de l'article 6, § 4 obéissent aux mêmes conditions (raison impérative d'intérêt public majeur et absence de solutions alternatives) : pour balancer, les juges utilisent le principe de proportionnalité : public interest mmust be proportionnal to the damage of species

[8] CAA Nantes, 6 oct. 2020, n° 19NT01714, 19NT02501 et 19NT02520, préc. – CAA Nantes, 3 juill. 2020, n° 19NT01583, préc., pt 24. – En sens inverse : CAA Bordeaux, 30 avr. 2019, n° 17BX01426, préc. : annulation, le projet de centrale hydroélectrique ne contribuant pas de manière déterminante à la réalisation des engagements de l'État. – CAA Marseille, 24 janv. 2020, n° 18MA04972 Parc éolien Avant-Mont 10 winds turbines with 30 Megawatts of power, confirmé en CE 10/03/2022, 439784 Avant-Mont : contribution du projet à hauteur, seulement, de 1,5 % des objectifs régionaux. En défaveur du projet, on note le fait qu'il n'est pas de nature à modifier sensiblement la part des énergies renouvelables dans l'équilibre entre les différentes sources d'approvisionnement d'énergies au niveau local ou national (CAA Bordeaux, 30 avr. 2019, n° 17BX01426), que la région concernée n'est pas confrontée à des déséquilibres particuliers en matière de diversification des sources de production d'énergie (CAA Marseille, 24 janv. 2020, n° 18MA04972) ou qu'une partie de la population locale ne se trouverait pas privée de toute possibilité d'approvisionnement en électricité (CAA Bordeaux, 30 avr. 2019, n° 17BX01426)