Fears over France's backwards steps on climate and energy

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The French government is shortly due due to announce its plans on energy use and carbon dioxide emission reductions to be implemented up to 2028. Environmental groups are worried the country is set to reduce its ambition on emissions targets and on the decommissioning of its nuclear power stations. Figures meanwhile show that Paris is not currently meeting its existing carbon emission commitments, a revelation that comes just weeks before the next climate change summit, COP24, takes place in Poland. Christophe Gueugneau reports.

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Is Emmanuel Macron putting his role as 'the Earth's champion' at risk over his environmental policies? The French government was supposed to have unveiled its plans on energy, reducing carbon emissions and its low-carbon strategy up to 2028 by the end of October this year. It now seems that these plans will not be revealed until mid-November, just a few short weeks before December's climate change summit, COP24, takes place in Poland. And already many environmental campaign groups worry there are signs that France's ambition in these areas is being scaled down.

Under the presidency of François Hollande the last-minute deal reached at COP21 in Paris in 2015 put France in a strong position diplomatically on the subject of climate change. After the election of Donald Trump as US president, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to pick up the baton as a world leader on the issue with his famous 'Make our planet great again' remark, suggesting that France would continue to lead the way on climate issues.

But just a few weeks after a special IPCC report on global warming warned about the risks of not acting fast enough on emissions reductions, France does not give the impression of stepping up the pace. Instead, it looks to be going backwards in terms of concrete plans and results.

Emmanuel Macron at the One Planet Summit held in Paris in December 2017. © Reuters Emmanuel Macron at the One Planet Summit held in Paris in December 2017. © Reuters
According to a study by the sustainable development and international relations institute the Institut du Séveloppement Durable et des Relations Internationales (IDDRI), France is not just failing to respect its pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, those emissions are in fact rising.

The latest findings of the county's national low-carbon strategy or SNBC show that in 2016 greenhouse gas emissions exceeded the annual benchmark figure by 3.6%. The increases were seen right across different sectors: a rise of 6% for transport, 3% for agriculture and 11% in construction.

No official figures are yet available for 2017. But the climate action network Réseau Action Climat (RAC), working with the energy transition network group CLER, have come up with their own figures for that year which suggest the picture is getting worse, with emissions up 10.6% in transport, 3.2% in agriculture and 22.7% in construction.

Moreover, even France's planned reductions in emissions are themselves below what the country promised when it hosted COP21 three years ago, commitments that each nation is supposed to strengthen when COP24 gathers next month. France is not alone in this. A recent study shows that out of 197 nations that signed the Paris agreement, only 16 have set out a climate plan of action that will enable them to honour their commitments.

France is therefore lagging behind when it comes to the bigger picture but it is also struggling when it comes to individual projects and policy detail. For example, the authorities have given the go ahead for the oil company Total to drill for oil off the coast of French Guiana, for the continuation of the new motorway west of Strasbourg in north-east France and for the A69 motorway between Castres and Toulouse in south-west France. Critics say this shows Emmanuel Macron's policies are stuck in the past.

On top of this, at the last European meeting of environment ministers on October 8th, 2018, France backed Germany in getting a modest agreement on cuts in emissions from vehicles by 2030 that left many other EU countries “disappointed”.This is despite the fact that a recent study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows that around 422,000 people died prematurely in European countries in 2015 due to exposure to harmful levels of fine particle matter.

Paris, March 18th, 2015. © Reuters Paris, March 18th, 2015. © Reuters
On Sunday October 28th, the Journal du Dimanche newspaper published a leaked “working document” which appeared to come from either the French Ministry of Finance or the Élysée itself and which discusses the government's “industrial energy policy”. This report supplements the current work bring carried out on what is known as the multi-annual energy programme or PPE, part of the country's national low carbon strategy. The latter concerns France's broader climate policies while the former is focused more on the production and consumption of energy.

This leaked document on industrial policy has caused dismay among campaigners. “Overall it's a very technical document, which completely overlooks the renovation of buildings, public transport and even bicycles,” explains Anne Bringault from the CLER and RAC climate networks. Yet as Célia Gautier from the Fondation pour la Nature et l'Homme (FNH) says: “The delay so far in the building, transport and agricultural sectors should be leading us to accelerate.”

Environmental associations are equally concerned about what the leaked report says about the nuclear industry. Not only does the document not address the question of closing ageing nuclear plants, it proposes launching a “research programme on prolonging the life and optimising the existing [nuclear power stations]” while building a “new series” of reactors.

Célia Gautier from the group FMH says that building new reactors would be an “economic absurdity” because this energy source is today no longer “competitive” compared with renewable energies. “At some point we will have to decide what comes after nuclear. The government must provided answers and stop using the absolute urgency posed by the climate crisis to save this sector,” she says.

The environmental groups' concern about the leaked document, which only provides for avenues for discussion and consideration, is heightened in the light of the discussions they had with the authorities over the summer about the energy and low-carbon strategy plans. “In July we spoke a lot about the average distance between service stations, which seemed to concern them a great deal in the ministries. But by contrast they said nothing about the [energy programme],” says Anne Bringault from the CLER and RAC climate networks.

On his official blog the Member of Parliament Matthieu Orphelin from the ruling La République en Marche (LREM) party, an environmentalist who is close to the former environment minister Nicolas Huulot who resigned earlier this year, calls for an “ambitious” energy programme. In particular he urges a “rate of closure of at least one nuclear reactor a year from 2022 and of two a year as soon as possible”. The MP from the Maine-et-Loire département or county in western central France concludes: “When France is not respecting 8 out of 9 climatic commitments that it set itself, then things are urgent, and the political response must be up to it!”.

Environment groups say the government now has around two weeks to prepare an energy plan and a low-carbon strategy that meet those challenges and around two months to demonstrate a desire and concrete actions that can be highlighted at COP24. Finally, they say, it has two years to abandon the current gradualist approach to policy and bring about a real step-change on environmental issues that matches the urgency of the latest IPCC report.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Michael Streeter

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