France’s fight against climate change – a quick overview

Written by Anthea Bicakcioglu

Posted on 05/04/21

In November 2018 French president Macron announced his intention to introduce a tax on gas in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions). Only a few days later, the world witnessed the awakening of a protest movement that drew massive attention: the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) movement. Two years later and the gilets jaunes have still not doffed their yellow vests. Occupying roundabouts and roadsides, they continue protesting Macron and his policies. Was Macron able to introduce climate policies after all? What is the status of France’s fight against climate change?

On a European stage, France is one of the 27 Member States with the lowest GHG emissions. On average, a French resident emits 16% less GHG emission than residents in the other Member States. On top of that, with a decrease of 5,6% of GHG emission levels from 1990 to 2007, France has already surpassed the requirements set up by the Kyoto protocol (namely the exigence to lower GHG emissions by a level of 5% from 1990 until 2008-2012). In total, France is ‘only’ responsible for one percent of GHG emissions worldwide [1].

Although those preluding lines may have created a positive image of France’s climate situation a closer look needs to be taken to see what is actually being done – and whether it is sufficient.

Building sector

Narrow, tall, cream-colored buildings with a 45-degree angle rooftop – the famous Haussmann apartments represent over 60% of Paris’ housing. Despite their beautiful design, the majority of those buildings are thermally inefficient. In other words, they are not insulated and are thus not able to retain the energy, e.g. heating, inside their four walls – a waste of energy and a leading cause of GHG emissions. In general, most of the buildings in France were built before thermal insulation became obligatory (namely before 1975). In total, the non-residential and residential building sector in France is responsible for 23% of total GHG emissions [2]. In order to tackle this large-scale waste of energy, the French government has adopted several policies aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of the building sector. Next to generous financial incentives to build thermally efficient housing, France launched an ambitious plan to renovate 500,000 buildings each year to improve their energy efficiency [3].

View over Marseille, France’s second biggest town - © Anthea Bicakcioglu
Transport sector

As is the case in most countries, the transport sector is one of the leading emitters of GHG emissions. France is no exception to this. In 2007, the French transport sector was responsible for 26% of final GHG emissions – mainly caused by private road vehicles. France is trying to combat this by investing unprecedently in public transport all over the country. The recently passed Mobility Law foresees a 13 billion euros investment until 2022 in the development of public transport systems to encourage citizens to abstain from using their cars [4]. Having spent my Erasmus semester in the South of France, I can personally confirm that the public transport network is very well developed and extremely affordable: In the Bouches-du-Rhone region, you can use all buses (also between different cities) all day long for only two euros. The same applies to the extensive and efficient train system. Moreover, it should be mentioned that the famous car-sharing app blablacar was created in France indicating rightly that the popularity of carsharing is increasing. However, as alluded to in the introduction, not every climate policy was successful: the intent to increase the carbon tax to 86.20 euros per CO2-tonne had to be discarded – a major set-back in France’s climate strategy.

Energy sector

Next to the Eiffel Tour, macarons and the Cote d’Azur France is famous for one very controversial achievement – its many nuclear power plants. In total France accommodates 56 power plants which produce 70,6% of the country’s electricity, which constitutes the highest percentage all over the world [5]. Indeed, the energy produced by nuclear power plants does not cause any direct GHG emissions making it very attractive vis-à-vis other means of energy production such as energy extraction from fossil fuels. However, in the long run, nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste which continues to radiate for the next hundreds of millions of years. As regards renewable energies, France is clearly lagging behind: with only 16% of the French are producing even less renewable energy than the European Union average [6]. Change in the French energy sector will only be slow in the years to come since the domain is heavily influenced by powerful lobbyists in the nuclear energy business.

Agricultural sector

In the European Union, France has traditionally been reluctant to decrease the amount of money allocated to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the EU budget which provides farmers with subsidies. This reluctance is easy to explain since France is the main beneficiary of this policy, having received around 63,7 billion euros from the 2014-2020 budget amounting to 408.31 billion euros. France is the biggest agricultural producer in the EU, being responsible for 1/5 of the European-wide agricultural produce. Hence, it is easy to understand why the French agricultural sector is responsible for around 20% of total GHG emissions in France [7]. The sector plays a major part in the economy and is ingrained in France’s DNA – a decrease in the output would derange a long-standing economic and social order. So instead of diminishing the size of its production, France’s policies aim at incentivizing farmers to switch to climate-friendly cultivation methods. The so-called “Ambition Bio 2022 programme” foresees that by 2022, 15% of all farming in France will be organic farming [8].

Citizen’s Convention on Climate

As a response to the yellow vest movement Macron established the Citizen’s Convention on Climate – a form of direct democracy that gives 150 randomly chosen French citizens the opportunity to come up with draft legislation aimed at combating climate change. After six sessions in the time period of October 2019 until June 2020, the convention prepared 149 propositions out of which 146 were adopted subsequently by the French parliament. One such proposition demanded the increase of the budget dedicated to installing cycle paths from 50 to 200 million euros. Another one which called for the reduction of the speed limit on highways from 130 km/h to 110 km/h – one of the three propositions which were not adopted by the French parliament [9]. All in all, France’s first trial with direct democracy can be deemed as a raving success as it allowed the swift adoption of impactful policies while involving citizens in the democratic decision-making process.

The Mont Saint Michel, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change - © Anthea Bicakcioglu

It is definitely worth looking at how France is managing the climate crisis. Many innovative and inspiring policies such as the mobility law and policy-making formats such as the Citizen’s Convention on Climate can serve as examples to be imitated by other countries. However, in many areas French policies are shortsighted, the most outstanding example being France’s massive reliance on nuclear energy production. The Climate Change Performance Index [10] which measures the performance of 61 countries as regards their fight against climate change placed France on rank 18 with the mention ‘medium’ – the expression which probably most fittingly describes France’s ambitions against the climate crisis.

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