The Green Brief: Macron’s ecological to-do list

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French President Emmanuel Macron will need to raise his environmental game in the coming five years after his first mandate was marked by grave mistakes on carbon taxation and stagnation on renewable energies.

Macron’s first government generated great expectations in 2017 when Nicolas Hulot, a former TV presenter and environmental activist, was nominated as state minister in charge of “ecological and solidarity transition”.

At first, Macron appeared like a champion of climate policy. Just weeks after his nomination, Hulot stepped up France’s ambitions, with plans to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050 and end the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars by 2040.

The French president also took ownership of the international fight against climate change, with the organisation of the “One Planet Summit” in December 2017, which created hope among climate activists that change might truly be under way.

But it soon started to go awry.

First, Hulot shocked the president by announcing his surprise resignation in August 2018, just one year into the job, citing the weight of France’s established lobbies to justify his decision. There is no “vision” or “roadmap” to address global issues like climate change or the collapse of biodiversity, which require determined and coordinated action by the whole government, Hulot complained.

Hulot’s surprise resignation was only the start of Macron’s problems with green policies. The worst came just weeks later, when the “Yellow Vests” movement began.

The spontaneous protests started in October 2018 in reaction to a carbon tax introduced on petroleum products. They soon morphed into a wider anti-government movement, which saw violent riots erupting in the streets of Paris and other cities across the country, threatening to topple the government.

The carbon tax was relatively modest, leading to an average rise of just €0.10 in the price of diesel and petrol at the pump.

Yet, it turned out to be Macron’s gravest environmental policy mistake. In the months that followed, the government had to back down and froze the reform, admitting it had failed to consider the implications of the carbon tax on the poorest in society.

Further disillusions followed. In response to the “Yellow Vests”, Macron launched an ambitious “citizen convention on climate change” and created a national “ecological defence council” to advise him on environmental issues.

The citizen convention produced 149 proposals to solve the climate crisis but 80% of them were abandoned and only 18 were adopted unchanged, to the great disappointment of environmental activists.

Perhaps more worrying, France is also trailing behind on its clean energy goals, with only 25% of the country’s electricity produced from renewables, far behind its 40% objective for 2030.

France’s foot-dragging on renewables is particularly apparent with offshore wind. Not a single offshore wind farm has been constructed in the country, despite tenders concluded in 2011, 2013 and 2016 – all prior to Macron’s first mandate.

On solar, France’s backwardness is baffling. Despite inexpensive costs and positive perceptions from the general public, solar PV represents a measly 3% of electricity production in France, way behind Germany, which has less generous sunshine. France now risks being ridiculed by the German government, which aims to have solar on every suitable rooftop across the country.

Meanwhile, environmental policy fell down on Macron’s list of priorities. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, the French president shifted to crisis-fighting mode, relegating the environment to an afterthought.

Admittedly, Macron was instrumental in putting together the EU’s historic €800 billion recovery plan, including its green component. But the COVID crisis also marked the end of major French environmental policy initiatives on a national level.

Macron’s only major policy announcement came at the start of the 2022 presidential election campaign. During a 10 February speech, the French president vowed to deploy more nuclear, wind and solar than ever before, pleasing both the pro-nuclear and pro-renewables camps in France.

Overall, Macron’s first mandate was disappointing to many observers and never matched the hopes initially raised at the beginning of his first mandate.

The new-old president is well aware of those shortcomings. Before his re-election, he acknowledged the “powerful message” sent by French voters in the first round when 21% of them backed hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his ecology-heavy programme.

As well as promising to make France “the first major nation to abandon gas, oil and coal”, Macron said he would appoint a prime minister who would be formally tasked with “ecological planning” across the different government ministries – a move that could break the political silos and entrenched views that eventually led to Hulot’s resignation.

All these announcements are to be welcomed, even though critics could argue that they arrive five years late. Macron now needs to implement them swiftly and make up for the lost time.

– Frédéric Simon


This week’s top stories

More stories:


News from the capitals

PARIS. Macron on the lookout for France’s first ‘climate’ prime minister. Re-elected President Emmanuel Macron will, as promised, soon name his new Prime Minister in charge of “ecological planning”, though with the legislative election just around the corner, the cards could soon be reshuffled. Read more.

MADRID. Spain, Portugal agree with EU Commission to limit gas price. Wholesale electricity market gas prices will go from €90 to around €50 in May to benefit Iberian customers, according to a “political agreement” with the European Commission, Spain and Portugal announced on Tuesday. Read more.

BUDAPEST. Hungarian billionaire slams government’s utility prices policy. The government should not pursue one of its flagship policies of cutting utility prices, said Sándor Csányi, CEO of Hungary’s largest lender OTP Bank, adding that he expected high energy prices to persist. Read more.

PRAGUE | BRATISLAVA. Slovakia, Czechia to stop subsidising natural gas for heating. Reducing dependence on Russian natural gas requires halting subsidies on natural gas in central heating, said the State Secretary of Slovakia’s economy ministry, Karol Galek, as Czechia does the same. Read more.

THE HAGUE. Dutch to stop using Russian gas by year-end. The Netherlands plans to end its reliance on Russian gas by the end of 2022 by focusing on saving energy, sustainability, and importing energy from other countries, Climate Minister Rob Jetten said during a cabinet meeting on Friday, Dutch News reports. Read more. 

HELSINKI. Finland reduces electricity transmission from Russia. Finland has decided to restrict the transmission capacity in cross-border connections to Russia as it fears cyberattacks and other forms of harassment if it applies for NATO membership. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Slovakia looks to home-grown uranium to cut Russian nuclear dependence. Uranium mining in the country’s east could be a solution to cutting dependency on Russia’s nuclear fuel supplies, Economy Minister Richard Sulík has said. Read more.

SOFIA. Bulgaria negotiates gas independence from Russia. Bulgaria will be independent of Russian gas supplies and the only issue to resolve before signing a contract for alternative supplies is the price, said Democratic Bulgaria MP and deputy chairman of the energy committee in the Parliament, Ivaylo Mirchevon, on Saturday before BNT. Read more.

TIRANA. Albania looks at gasification with a €4 billion price tag. Amid the global energy crisis, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, Albania is working to diversify its energy sources, including by introducing gas and wind power, with the former set to cost up to €4 billion to implement. Read more.

VIENNA. Austrian oil giant OMV stops Russian oil imports. Austria, one of the EU countries most reliant on Russian gas, has stopped importing and refining Russian crude oil as of March, a spokesperson for OMV confirmed. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Private companies lead renewables development in Slovakia. High energy prices and poor perspective for the future have caused a boom in photovoltaic energy led mainly by private companies, which are trying to lower their dependence on Russian gas, Denník N reports. Read more. 

HELSINKI AND TALLINN. Finland and Estonia bunk on floating LNG terminal to secure gas supply. Finland and Estonia have made a joint decision to lease a large LNG terminal ship in their pursuit of ending the use of Russian gas. The project announced on 7 April is apparently underway, though few details or specifics have been made public at this stage. Read more.

THE HAGUE | BERLIN. Netherlands, Germany to begin drilling for natural gas in Wadden Islands. Germany will work with the Dutch exploration and production company, ONE-Dyas, to operate a gas field in the North Sea above Schiermonnikoog and the German Wadden island of Borkum, Dutch broadcaster NOS reported on Wednesday. Read more.

BUDAPEST. Hungarians support reducing Russian gas use but want to avoid war. Over three-quarters of Hungarians want local energy production and zero dependence on Russian gas but want to remain firmly out of the war, according to polls published on Wednesday, Telex reported. Read more.

LISBON. Diesel production in Sines at risk due to Russian invasion. Diesel production at Galp’s refinery in Sines could be affected in May if alternatives are not found to ensure the supply of vacuum gas oil the company used to buy from Russia, Andy Brown, the refinery’s chief executive, said on Wednesday. Read more.


News in brief

Majority emerges on ETS reform in European Parliament. Peter Liese, the German lawmaker in charge of steering the EU carbon market reform proposal in the European Parliament, briefed journalists on Tuesday (26 April) about the state of play in the discussions among the assembly’s main political groups.

And it’s not looking good for the European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right political faction which Liese represents. According to him, “a majority” is emerging in the Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) – which is leading the talks – to significantly raise ambition. This group is comprised of the Greens, the Left, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the centrist Renew Europe factions.

“There is a strong demand by these groups to be much more ambitious and to have more than 61% emission reduction” from ETS sectors, Liese said. This would mean that the EU “would substantially overachieve” its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target of 55%, he warned.

Liese challenged those demands, saying he preferred sticking with the European Commission’s original proposal, tabled in July 2021. “61% is very demanding and we shouldn’t overdo it, especially in this time of crisis, where we need to be independent from Russia gas as soon as possible.”

With the war in Ukraine, EU countries are getting ready to restart coal-fired power plants in case Russian gas supplies are cut. “At least for the next two, three years, I think we may be forced to use more coal to get rid of Russian gas,” Liese said. “And that will of course be a challenge for the ETS,” he said, warning against moves to increase the EU’s ambition.

Next steps. Liese said further talks are expected next week, including an open-ended meeting on Wednesday (4 May) where representatives of political groups will convene “for as long as necessary” to find a common position. The Parliament’s environment committee will vote on the Liese report on 17 May. A vote in plenary is expected in June. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

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Talks on battery regulation to be concluded by summer, says EU Commission official. The first round of negotiations between the European Parliament, the European Commission and EU countries on a new regulation covering batteries has just taken place and the French EU Council presidency is determined to move quickly with the reform, according to the EU executive.

“Because of the incredible speed we need to put here, the Presidency announced in the first trialogue that there will be six more trialogues. So really, we’re looking at before the summer on the battery regulation,” said Kerstin Jorna, the director general, of the Commission’s industry and internal market department (DG Grow) at an event on Monday (25 April).

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EU taxonomy risks playing into the hands of Russian oligarchs, warn Green MEPs. The European Parliament should reject the delegated act of the sustainable finance taxonomy that covers fossil gas when it is voted on in July, according to Ciarán Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan, two Irish Green MEPs. 

In an article published by the Irish Times, they argue that the taxonomy should be voted down or it risks playing “even further into the hands of despots and oligarchs”. “Placing fossil fuel investment on par with renewables is wrong, and greenwashing gas will delay the transition to clean energy. This will significantly undermine our plans for a green energy transition if successful, by incentivising construction of new gas plants with long lifespans,” they write. Read the full article here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Commission lays out roadmap to restrict harmful substances. On Monday (25 April), the European Commission published a “Restrictions Roadmap” to indicate which harmful chemical substances will be restricted under EU legislation in the coming years. It prioritises restrictions for the most harmful substances to human health and the environment, which were laid out in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.

“These REACH restrictions aim to reduce [the] exposure of people and the environment to some of the most harmful chemicals, addressing a wide range of their uses – industrial, professional, and in consumer products,” said environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) estimates that the roadmap will mean thousands of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants, PFAS and PVC, will be banned by 2030 in the biggest ever regulatory removal of authorised chemicals. “What Von der Leyen’s Commission has announced today opens a new chapter in facing down the growing threat from harmful chemicals. This ‘great detox’ promises to improve the safety of almost all manufactured products and rapidly lower the chemical intensity of our schools, homes and workplaces,” said EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos.

Meanwhile, the chemicals industry body Cefic warned that “such restrictions may have significant impact on industry and value chains; and consequently, on products produced and used in Europe”. It adds that the chemicals industry welcomes the increased transparency on potential restrictions and calls for the implementation process to ensure “clarity of scope, consider risks and impacts on value chains, all based on the latest scientific advancements”. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)


Opinions


Upcoming events

27 APRIL. EU ETS: How to mitigate instability? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss the possible impacts of excessive speculation on the functioning of the EU ETS market. What measures could be taken to mitigate the risk of excessive speculation, and more broadly to stabilise allowances prices and improve the EU ETS market functioning? Speakers include Jytte Guteland MEP and Fabrizio Planta from ESMA. Full programme and registration here. (Supported by PGE).

28 APRIL. Carbon removals – how best to implement and validate? Join this EURACTIV virtual event to debate the regulatory framework that would foster trust in carbon removals. Independent measurement and verification are essential to ensure that carbon removals have been properly conducted and that the carbon is effectively and permanently removed from the atmosphere. Speakers include Lukas Visek from the cabinet of EC vice-president Timmermans and Norbert Lins MEP. Programme and registration here. (Supported by TIC Council)

29 APRIL. Circularity of bottles: contributing to the Green Deal. Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss what’s the best recipe for meeting circular economy and climate objectives and whether deposit return schemes are an efficient way to meet collection and recycling targets for EU natural mineral and spring water producers. Speakers include Martin Hojsík from the European Parliament’s environment committee and more. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Natural Mineral Waters Europe)

29 APRIL. Media Partnership: Initiatives for a sustainable industry in Brazil. This webinar will cover examples of sustainability in the Brazilian industry. ORGANISED BY: The Embassy of Brazil in Berlin and ApexBrasil. Programme and registration here.

10 MAY. Due diligence and sustainable sourcing: can a common approach for all sectors work? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss responsible sourcing and due diligence. How can companies best develop tools and standards that fit the upcoming European legislation? And how can the European Commission ensure there is a coherent approach for all actors involved? Speakers to be announced soon. (Supported by the Nickel Institute).

17 MAY. Sustainable and healthy buildings – reaching the goals of the EU Green Deal. Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss how the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) can support a healthy indoor climate while accelerating a decrease of energy costs and decarbonising our buildings. Speakers to be announced soon. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Velux).

17 MAY. A revised EPBD – faster decarbonisation of the EU’s building stock? Join this EURACTIV Hybrid Conference to discuss what can be done to improve the existing regulatory framework to support an effective decarbonisation process in the building sector. Speakers to be announced soon. Programme and registration here. (Supported by EdEn – Equilibre des Energies).


On our radar

18 MAY. The European Commission will present its REPowerEU plan to break away from Russian fossil fuels. This combines with a new “international partnerships and energy package”, consisting of:

  • New strategy on international energy engagement
  • Joint Communication on a partnership with the Gulf

25-27 MAY. Meeting of G7 climate and energy ministers.

7 JUNE. Joint Communication on international ocean governance.

15 JUNE. 2022 Strategic Foresight Report.

22 JUNE. Nature protection package (tbc):

  • Sustainable use of pesticides – revision of the EU rules
  • Protecting biodiversity: nature restoration targets 

27 JUNE. Energy Council.

28 JUNE. Environment Council.

5 JULY. New design requirements and consumer rights for electronics (tbc).

20 JULY. Circular Economy Package 2:

  • Policy framework for bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics
  • Review of the Packaging and packaging waste directive to reinforce the essential requirements for packaging and establish EU level packaging waste prevention measures and targets
  • Review of the Urban Wastewater Treatment directive
  • Proposal for a Regulation on substantiating environmental claims using the Product/ Organisation Environmental Footprint methods (green claims)

Development of post-Euro 6/VI emission standards for cars, vans, lorries and buses

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