In preparation for what was to become the landmark COP21 – Paris Climate agreement in November – December 2015, the French government of the day passed a law called the “Energy Transition for Green Growth” in August 2015.
While applauded by some groups, the law relied on massive reductions in electricity consumption, and thermal retrofits to houses reaching an average of 500,000 / year by 2017. (Studies indicate the real need is one million / year over a 10-year period, and the actual figures achieved are about 150,000/year). It showed little concern with the known limitations of renewable energies in the European context, and was spurious in its use of data.
In addition, there was a strong emphasis on significantly reducing – and ultimately eliminating – the largest single source of carbon-free energy (nuclear), replacing it with intermittent renewables. Unspecified but potentially massive expenditure was required but the sources of funding were not specified.
French energy and climate policies have a history of very ambitious targets and plans that have progressively turned into empty shells in the absence of clear implementation measures and governance structures.
Now, two years later, while electricity consumption in France remains approximately stable, CO2 emissions are dramatically increasing due to the need to smooth out renewable intermittency with fossil fuels.
Following the May election, the new government under President Emmanuel Macron decided to re-calibrate the climate transition program. Speaking in Bonn, Germany at the COP23, President Macron set out a new plan for France characterized by refreshing clarity and determination.
Macron’s Speech (15/11/2017): Key Points
President Macron began by affirming that the international community has paid essentially no attention to scientific warnings, thereby wasting 25 years, and concluded that we’ve now reached an irreversible threshold. The fight against climate change is one of the major struggles of our time. He reiterated the goals of the Paris agreement: maximum temperature rise of 2°C by the end of the century, and preferably 1.5°.
Macron specified the need for constantly updated international scientific expertise. Noting that the IPCC, which contributes much of our scientific input, is financially stressed by the announced US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Macron hoped that the EU would make up for the shortfall, and promised that France would ensure that the financing would be available.
He announced that there would be a funding meeting in Paris on the 12th of December, which would include the Secretary General of the UN and the president of the World Bank, and others who would ensure that funding would be available for projects and would provide a road map for the more vulnerable states to make the transition.
At the European level, Macron hoped the focus would be on one objective: to reduce greenhouse emissions. He insisted that France has four priorities:
Firstly, to better use renewables, he wants European countries to participate in the financing of electricity interconnections between France and Germany and with Ireland, Spain, Benelux and Portugal.
The second priority is a CO2 floor price in Europe. He suggested a reference price of 30€ / ton of CO2 to be agreed on in the next few months. This is considered the minimum needed to change the priorities of investors and major industries. If we can’t make this happen, we won’t meet our expectations. Further supporting measures will be needed, including a border tax to protect EU economic sectors from countries that don’t have the same objectives and decide not to engage in the necessary environmental transition. The recent agreement on ETS (Emissions Trading System) is a step in the right direction but needs to be completed during the coming year.
The third priority is to integrate environmental objectives into our trade policy and not negotiate agreements with countries that do not share the same commitment or are less ambitious than we are. This would need changes at the European level.
The final priority is to move forward with renewables, fully understanding that if we wish to continue to substitute non-intermittent energies, we will need to develop energy storage on a massive scale. Money, scientific breakthroughs and joint projects will be necessary to achieve this.
Finally, as far as France is concerned, we must accelerate this transformation with one obsession, that of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions!
“We are clearly committed to an exit from the production of fossil fuels and a real transformation of our mode of production. France has made the decision to close all coal plants by the end of the year 2021, and refrain from new thermal power plant construction, and an end to issuing new permits for exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in our country. It is the first time that a developed country has decided on such a policy for its own territory”.
“Accelerating the rise of renewable energies means accelerating the technological challenge of widespread development of storage, and the previously mentioned European partnerships. Make no mistake, to call for accelerating the shutdown of nuclear power plants without having resolved this, is to condemn us in the coming years to reopen coal plants or thermal power plants, and thus to do the very opposite of our commitments.” He repeated, “The priority is the reduction of emissions, the priority is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing else.”
This priority includes a climate plan for transportation, with an inducive tax policy to converge all modes of transport toward carbon-free electrification. The goal over the next 20 years is to remove vehicles that emit greenhouse gases. The same commitment leads to massively invest in the thermal renovation of buildings.
In closing, “We have taken responsible decisions, have abandoned unrealistic fetishes and have set an agenda of credible, purposeful decisions that will involve the commitment of all”.
Saving Our Planet Commentary
The points set out are clear improvements on the ideologically defined contents of the plan approved by the previous government. They show clear thinking and political courage. The requirement to rely on international scientific expertise sets the tone.
Macron’s declaration has finally put an end to the threat of shale gas exploration and exploitation in France.
As is nearly always the case with political promises, numbers are lacking. As we can see below, the effort necessary to meet the 2°C goal will be gigantic if we begin seriously in 2018, and even more difficult if we delay:
Emission Rate Reduction for 2°C Goal
Unfortunately, several of the critically necessary components of Macron’s plan require EU approval and are likely to require long negotiation, and a positive outcome is far from certain. Integration of environmental objectives in trade policies are a case in point. Trade negotiations are EU prerogatives and affect all members equally.
Expanding electricity transmission interconnection with additional European countries makes sense if there is a synergy in electricity production and if the massive costs can be justified. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is massive overcapacity in photovoltaic production in mid-summer when the demand is the lowest, and hardly any capacity in mid-winter when the demand is highest. At night, there is no production.
Studies are showing that the countries identified for “backup” will themselves be deficient in the 2025 – 2035 period. Sauvons le Climate is preparing a study that will identify and quantify these deficiencies.
Finally, as previously mentioned, expanding renewables can only be done with the availability of reliable, massive, and cost effective storage. This does not exist and its future availability is unknown. Scenarios exist, but all have serious limitations, and none have ever been tried on a large scale. Some need to be coupled with carbon capture. Prudence, as suggested by Macron, is essential and only a continuation and expansion of nuclear energy conforms to Macron’s dictum: “The priority is the reduction of emissions, the priority is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing else.”