Whiter shade of pale green: France's modest plans for a brave new world of energy use

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The French government’s environment and energy minister Ségolène Royal has just unveiled her plans for what is known as “energy transition” - the move to a society which uses less energy and which switches from fossil and nuclear fuel to renewables. This long-awaited new law, which will be debated by the French Parliament in the autumn, has been touted as one of the flagship measures of President François Hollande's five-year term of office. But as Mediapart's environment correspondent Jade Lindgaard and Dan Israel report, the proposals, while regarded as a step in the right direction, have been widely described as timid and lacking in ambition.

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President François Hollande has made it clear that his government's law on energy transition is “one of the most important of [my] term in office”. Last week it was presented by environment and energy minister Ségolène Royal to the government's weekly ministerial cabinet meeting amid considerable fanfare.

According to a government spokesman the proposed legislation (see below), which aims to cut energy use and oversee the switch from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy, heralds a “new French energy model”. The spokesman continued: “This proposed legislation makes France one of the most committed member states in the European Union when it comes to energy transition and the fight against climate change, at a time when we are discussing the new energy and climate package at a European level. With the approach of the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015, it puts French ambition into practice in the framework of international negotiations.”

In reality, however, the measures announced last Wednesday are modest in both content and ambition. They are based on proposals first unveiled by Ségolène Royal in mid-June and which were subsequently sent to two state consultative bodies, the Conseil National de la Transition Écologique (CNTE) and the Conseil Économique, Social et Environnemental(CESE), for their opinion and recommendations. Each organisation made suggestions, some of which have been followed by the government. For example, there will now be an annual target for energy consumption savings until 2030, and the definition of a 'clean' vehicle has been broadened beyond just electric or hybrid cars.

But overall many observers remain underwhelmed. “Nothing new under the sun,” was the view of the climate change pressure group Réseau action climat. “Whether on medium term objectives, renovating housing stock, transport or energy production, the proposed legislation makes some modest advances at the margins but doesn't provide the necessary impetus to move towards an energy model that is more restrained, creates jobs, is more local-based and less polluting,” said the group, which called on MPs to flesh out the proposals.

There was also a cautious reaction from the Fondation Nicolas-Hulot, the high-profile foundation set up by French TV personality and environmental campaigner Nicolas Hulot. The group gave its support in principle for the measures, claiming “this bill will be a major achievement of [President Hollande's] term of office, and a way, finally, of entering the 21st century”. However this is on condition that the bill “is given the means to be put in practice, that's to say the level of funding that matches its ambitions, estimated at 20 billion euros a year”.

Here Mediapart highlights the strong and weak points of the minister's proposals.


  • Ten billion euros on the tables

Energy minister Ségolène Royal said that around 10 billion euros would be made available for the measures in the planned legislation: 5 billion euros from the state lending body the Caisse des dépôts for 2% loans aimed at local authorities, 1.5 billion euros “to reinforce support for exemplary local initiatives in energy transition and the circular economy”, 1.5 billion euros for tax breaks and also one billion euros for renovating the country's middle schools, plus various forms of loans.

Among the forms of aid announced are zero-interest home loans for individual homeowners, which the government wants to see rise in number from 30,000 a year to 100,000. However, despite the demands of pressure groups, these loans will not be dependent on a high level of energy efficiency in renovation works carried out. Also, households carrying out thermal insulation work before 2015 will be able to get a tax break of up to 30%; nor, says Royal, will they be obliged to have to carry out several different works at once, as has been the case in the past. The level of this tax break is capped at 8,000 euros for an individual and 16,000 euros for a couple.

In addition, so-called 'social rates' for energy charges – in effect lower bills for the least well-off – will be extended to households that use oil or wood to heat their homes. Currently only those who use gas or electricity qualify. However, the total cost of this new energy measure has not yet been established.

  • Energy mix on the right lines, but still not clear enough

Many consider the question of the energy mix target – what proportion of the country's overall energy need will be met by which energy source - to be a key point, and it features in the proposed legislation. Under the government's plan renewable energy must represent more than 30% of the country's total energy use by 2030 – in fact it specifies 32% - against 13.7% in 2012. Indeed, the government has even added an intermediate step, stating that the renewable part should form 23% of the energy mix by 2020.

The energy transition proposals also restate long-term objectives already announced by François Hollande: the halving of energy consumption between now and 2050 and a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Initially the draft laws did not set any intermediate targets for these goals. However, having listened to the advice of the CNTE and the CESE, the government has added that in relation to cutting energy consumption it will “set the annual rate of reducing energy intensity [editor's note, in other words increasing energy efficiency] at 2.5% between now and 2030”. Nonetheless this incremental approach has not pleased everyone. “It would have been clearer for everyone to have gone for a threshold for the reduction to be attained by 2030,” said Mathieu Orphelin of the Fondation Nicolas Hulot.

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