Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Kim Willsher reported this week at the Guardian on French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a “French environmental plan” (l’écologie à la Française). Its centerpieces involved phasing out coal by 2027 and reducing fossil fuels in France’s energy mix from 60% today to 40% in 2030.
France doesn’t use much coal. Only about 2.5% of its electricity comes from coal-fired plants. So phasing the noxious stuff out is great but it doesn’t exactly green the grid all by itself.
Le Monde reports that Macron also wants to manufacture a million electric vehicles in France by 2027, and to produce a million heat pumps so that French consumers can replace gas-fired and coal-fired home heating with them.
He did not put numbers on it, but the president pointed to a plan to build out offshore wind in the Atlantic to increase clean energy inputs. Further announcements will be made about bids and goals later this fall. Reuters reports that France only has about 20 gigawatts of onshore wind and the build-out is going too slowly to meet the country’s announced goals. Offshore wind is still rudimentary.
Macron also wants 12 new rail lines for mass transit at a cost of €700 million [$740.4 million], and is promising that the French will be able to lease electric cars for €100 [$105.76] per month. He is also pledging government price controls on electricity bills.
These are praiseworthy goals but, as French environmentalists pointed out, they are not very ambitious.
France has 39 million automobiles, so a million EVs is 2.5 percent. The country has 31 million households, so a million heat pumps would cover about 3 percent of them (not to mention all the commercial and industrial buildings).
Environmentalist and member of the European Parliament Yannick Jadot complained that Macron was mostly kicking the can down the road and was saying “that basically with technological solutions, in 10, 20 years, 30 years, we will begin to solve problems. He needs to pick up the tempo.”
Other observers noted the timidity of the plan, which seemed calculated to spare French industry and agriculture any short-term pain rather than actually to stop global warming in its tracks. At most, he is willing to slow it down a little bit, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience the captains of industry. But the slow-down would take place over decades.
If you compare Macron’s ambitions to those visible in Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which has $369 billion in it for the green energy transition, the Democratic Party is clearly way ahead of Macron’s center-right coalition. Even accounting for the difference in the populations of the two countries, Biden is spending the equivalent of $75 billion in French terms, whereas Macron is suggesting $30 billion or $40 billion.
Germany’s energy mix is set to be 50% no-carbon or low-carbon this year, 2023. France isn’t even trying to get there until 2027. In fact, in almost every way, the Germans have been significantly more visionary than the French in this epochal technological transition. I have to say that as a Francophile who grew up partially in France, this realization came as something of a shock to me. It is the solid German engineers who are remaking the planet, not the French technologists, who had been the heroes of the science fiction films. French politics has become a contest between the center-right and the far right, and people seem to be more exercised by race and petty economic calculations than by the behemoth of the climate crisis.
PS. Oct. 2, 2023: A French correspondent wrote in to chide me for ignoring that France’s nuclear reactors mean that the country has lower per capita CO2 emissions than either Germany or France. This is true, and I should have brought it up. Here is my reply:
- “Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Of course you are correct in all your points. As conventionally measured, France has a smaller carbon footprint than either Germany or the US.
I was mainly arguing from genuine renewables, i.e. wind and solar, where France lags and seems likely to go on lagging, given Macron’s policies.
I think it is unwise to put so many eggs in the nuclear basket. Ageing plants are a public safety concern, and as I pointed out, global heating is bringing into question riparian means of cooling down the rods (which as a process also does cause thermal pollution, harming riverine species).
One reason for my point of view on this is that I am a skeptic about the conventional CO2 calculations concerning nuclear plants, which typically do not include latent carbon emissions from the need for long-term safe storage (if there is such a thing). The waste storage issue is usually discounted, even though in the US, at least, it is verging on a crisis, The Scientific American points out.
My father was an engineer, and he went to his grave complaining that nuclear storage was an unsolved and perhaps unsolvable problem.
If we include cradle to grave CO2 emissions, nuclear doesn’t look as rosy.
Again, thank you for writing and pointing out my near-sighted omission of the nuclear factor, which I should have noted.