French power sector and NGOs demand clearer climate roadmap

The Blénod coal-fired power station; one of only four still active in France. [Alexandre Prévot_Flickr]

In response to France’s climate package, the electricity sector has called for higher carbon taxes, while NGOs have criticised the vagueness of the country’s plan to increase European ambition on the issue. EURACTIV France reports.

The French Electricity Union (UFE), a lobby group representing mainly nuclear energy producers, on Tuesday (11 July) argued that a complete rethink of the tax system was needed in order to guarantee the ecological transition. Fossil fuels currently enjoy large subsidies in France.

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Abandoning coal

France’s climate package will have far-reaching consequences for electricity producers: Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced the closure of 17 of the country’s 56 active nuclear reactors.

“But we have no calendar for this,” pointed out Christine Goubet-Milhaud, the president of UFE.

President Emmanuel Macron’s team also wants to bid a final farewell to coal during this five-year mandate.

Coal provides a total of around 1,000 direct and indirect jobs in France, according to UFE. The country has just four working coal-fired power stations, compared to around 100 in Germany.

“It is important to ensure that this transition is accompanied by appropriate social measures,” Goubet-Milhaud emphasised.

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The electricity producers’ union also called for higher and more effective taxes on carbon emissions.

UFE proposed to raise the tax on diesel, bringing it into line with the tax on petrol, which would raise €6bn for the state coffers. The organisation also pressed for an end to tax breaks for other oil products, which would raise a further €7bn.

“The government says it wants to progressively phase out fossil fuels, but concretely, we still heavily subsidise their consumption,” said Damiens Siess, UFE’s director of strategy.

The lobby group also highlighted the need for a reform of the regional tax system. UFE pointed out that France’s regions pocket a total of €12bn each year from taxes on hydrocarbons consumed on their territories and so have little incentive to invest in decarbonising the transport sector. The same goes for the registration documents of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, which bring in a further €2bn for France’s regions each year.

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Industry groups representing sectors as varied as wind and solar power, fuel cell batteries, copper and heat pumps, have clubbed together to launch the Electrification Alliance, with the hope that electricity will be recognised as the main energy carrier in Europe’s decarbonisation drive.

Carbon neutrality objective

But the government’s objective of total carbon neutrality by 2050 failed to inspire the electrical industry, which, like many NGOs, believes it is too distant to make much of an impact.

“We need to be given a precise course to steer,” said Goubet-Milhaud.

Yet so far, the French climate plan lacks this kind of detail. “The 2050 carbon neutrality objective, as imprecise as it is incomprehensible, is not a step forward: we need precise objectives and figures to allow us to draw up a roadmap in line with the 2°C target,” said Maxime Combes from the NGO Attac.

At European level, NGOs are also questioning the real meaning of certain phrases in the French climate plan. Particularly this one: “France will also mobilise to ensure the European Union, through its leadership, initiates the movement to increase the ambition of its emissions reduction objectives, in light of the conclusions of the facilitation dialogue foreseen in 2018.”

The EU’s current objective of cutting CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030 is a long way off what is needed to fulfil its commitment under the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise below +2°C.

EU ambition

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also said the EU should “redouble its efforts” on climate change, joining an alliance of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland that made a similar call in May.

But France has still not proposed a concrete objective. “It is a shame that Mr. Hulot did not mention the effort sharing regulation during the environment ministers’ discussions at the 19 June Council meeting,” said Ania Drążkiewicz from the Climate Action Network. She invited the minister to speak out at the next meeting on 13 October.

As for the issue of carbon pricing, the plans to establish a floor price, often repeated during the presidential campaign, appear to have disappeared from France’s agenda due to a lack of European consensus.

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