France raises its environmental game with ambitious new climate package

Newly appointed French Ecology Minister Nicolas Hulot kisses good bye former Ecology Minister Segolene Royal during the handover ceremony at the Ecology Ministry in Paris, France, 17 May 2017. [Etienne Laurent/EPA]

With plans to make France carbon neutral and phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2040, Paris is showing new levels of ambition when it comes to the environment. EURACTIV France reports.

Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot on Thursday (6 July) unveiled the details of his climate action plan. A step up in ambition from those of previous governments, the plan aims for carbon neutrality by 2050 and the end to sales of fossil fuel-powered cars in 2040.

“If you look at your feet you will fall. I am a tightrope walker,” Hulot said in his introductory speech.

The minister did not pull his punches, particularly when it came to the United States. “One of the main actors of the Paris Climate Conference has taken a pause in its commitments, which is painful,” he regretted.

Yet he was careful to highlight the distinction between the “brutal attitude” of President Donald Trump and that of American civil society.

He also condemned the “extreme violence” of the country’s decision to abandon its commitments to developing countries.

“We have a responsibility, we have committed to mobilise $100bn in climate finance,” Hulot said, referring to the Green Climate Fund, to which France has pledged $1bn by 2020, and an initiative to install renewable energies in Africa, to which it has pledged a further $2bn.

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France’s new climate plan places it “among the leaders, just behind Sweden and Costa Rica”, the minister said.

“The constraints of climate action can also improve our quality of life,” he insisted, adding that his place in the government showed just how much of a priority climate action had become in France, and that the logic of environmentalism should spread across other government departments.

Irreversible Paris Agreement

Hulot’s climate plan is centred around six broad themes, first among which is to make the Paris Agreement irreversible. This will be achieved by creating a citizen-led economic, social and environmental committee, which President Emmanuel Macron described as the “chamber of the future”.

The first measures the minister announced were a reward scheme for scrapping diesel cars, followed by other premiums designed to encourage household energy independence. Today, “14,000 homes consume their own energy and 350,000 sell energy to EDF: we can go further and faster,” he said.

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Change of thinking on the circular economy, coal and carbon pricing

The circular economy forms another central pillar of Hulot’s environmental programme. “We need to change the scale and even the very thinking behind the circular economy,” the minister said. He stressed that businesses stood to make great productivity gains by implementing intelligent circular economy strategies and promised a roadmap on the subject by 2018.

Hulot also announced a plan to cut France’s reliance on fossil fuels and to end the use of coal for electricity generation by 2022. “Coal represents 5% of our energy mix, which is little but still too much. By 2022, we will stop all energy generation using coal.”

“The IPCC says we have to leave three-quarters of fossil fuels in the ground. We should listen to them,” the minister said, adding that France would also stop issuing permits for fossil fuel exploration.

France also wants to increase the price of carbon emissions to give a competitive advantage to the low-carbon economy. Under the plan, industries will have to pay at least €100 per tonne of CO2 emitted in 2030.

By this same date, the carbon pricing scheme will cover 50% of all emissions, up from 25% in 2020. HFC, a gas used for refrigeration, will also be subject to carbon pricing under the French plans.

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While France is currently committed to dividing its carbon emissions by four by 2050, Hulot’s programme goes a step further, aiming for complete carbon neutrality.

“We must find the neutral balance between carbon sinks and emissions reductions. This is a long and difficult objective but it will set us on the right path,” the minister said.

The end of fossil fuel-powered vehicles

To enable France to reach this goal, the government also announced that it would ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

“This is a tough target but it is motivated by public health,” Hulot said. Swedish carmaker Volvo announced this week that it would stop selling petrol cars as early as 2019.

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“We must reconcile the economy and the environment.” For Hulot, the ‘Science come to France’ initiative, which aims to attract climate researchers to the country, and Paris’ objective of becoming the world capital of green finance, show how powerful an economic tool environmentalism can be.

According to the minister, the energy transition will also bring huge benefits for world peace. He stressed that most of the wars fought since 1945 have been in some way linked to oil or gas.

Palm oil

France also plans to halt “imported deforestation” by banning imports of certain products, such as unsustainably produced palm oil, from the Congo, South-East Asia and the Amazon. “We will shut the loophole that has allowed palm oil to be mixed with our diesel and vegetable proteins to be used in our animal feeds,” Hulot said.

But faced with such a barrage or seemingly ambitious projects, civil society observers are keeping cool heads. WWF welcomed the announcements but said the decision not to pursue the Financial Transaction Tax was a step in the wrong direction and raised questions over how serious the government really is about environmental issues.

And last Tuesday’s U-turn on endocrine disruptors raises further questions.

Finally, the goal of cutting the share of nuclear in France’s energy mix by 2050 to 50% remains unchanged.

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