April 30, 2019 / 3:36 PM / in 20 days

New French energy law puts off difficult climate decisions

PARIS (Reuters) - France has set more ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions by 2050 but few measures will take effect on President Emmanuel Macron’s watch as the “yellow vest” protest movement limits his scope for environmental protection.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron reacts as he speaks during a news conference to unveil his policy response to the yellow vests protest, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

A draft new “energy transition law”, presented to cabinet on Tuesday and seen by Reuters, pledges to reduce carbon emissions by a factor of more than six by 2050 compared to 1990. That increases the emissions’ reduction target from a factor of four stipulated in a 2015 energy law introduced by Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande.

Months after coming to power in 2017, Macron dropped that law’s key provision - despite a pledge to respect it - to reduce nuclear energy’s share in French electricity production to 50 percent by 2025, from 75 percent currently.

The new law will delay the 50 percent nuclear target to 2035, transfer the European Union’s 2018 “Winter Package” energy targets into French law and will also form the framework for a detailed “PPE” 2019-2028 energy strategy.

However, it includes no landmark measures to reduce CO2 emissions now, and replaces an election promise to close coal-fired power stations with a CO2 emission cap that would not take effect before Jan. 2022, just before the end of Macron’s term.

“This government systematically makes vague and very long-term commitments, but never any concrete, short-term policies that would be implemented during this president’s term,” Greenpeace energy campaigner Alix Mazounie said.

Macron was breaking his promise to close coal-fired plants by 2022, she said, adding that under the new system their life spans could be extended forever.

A senior environment ministry official denied the president was backtracking on environment pledges but acknowledged that no major new measures would be implemented on Macron’s watch.

“Energy policy must balance constraint with encouragement, and as we saw with the carbon contribution, going too fast and too hard is not necessarily the road to success,” she said, without wishing to be identified.

Late last year, Macron’s centrist government dropped planned fuel tax increases after protests by irate motorists turned into a nationwide movement by so-called “yellow vests” against his reforms.

Asked why Macron was setting targets for more than three decades away while he had undone the key element of his own predecessor’s energy law, the official said that was a normal process.

“Anything one government decides, another government can change, that is the principle of democracy,” she said.

Climate Action Network campaigner Anne Bringault said France has fallen behind on eight of nine key climate targets.

“The state is not respecting its own climate objectives, and since the energy law states that the PPE must respect these objectives, they are now changing the law,” she said.

Environment lawyer Arnaud Gossement said the new law was necessary after Macron had extended the lifespan of state-controlled utility EDF’s nuclear reactors by a decade.

“Once you reserve a huge place for nuclear for another 10 years, that changes everything for the place you leave for other forms of energy,” he said.

Macron is an ardent supporter of nuclear energy, which he sees as France’s answer to climate change, Gossement said.

The draft law is due to be submitted to parliament in late June and then head to the senate for final approval later in the summer.

WWF France’s Pierre Cannet said he hoped that lawmakers would force changes to the new law to make it more effective in fighting climate change.

“We hope that they will at least make sure coal plants are closed and that we do more to insulate buildings,” he said.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Susan Fenton

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