An Analysis of France’s Climate Bill: Green Deal or Great Disillusion?

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Wind millsFrance has passed a major new bill that will deeply transform the country's environmental laws, including its approach to climate change. But while the outcomes of the measure are promising, a variety of criticisms remain.

After an exhausting legislative process, the "Grenelle de l'Environnement," named after the so-called "negotiations of Grenelle" on wages that took place in 1968, ended with the adoption of the "Grenelle 2" bill this May. Enacted on July 13, three years after the process was launched by then-newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy, the new legislation covers environmental topics such as climate and energy, biodiversity protection, public health, sustainable agriculture, waste management, and the governance of sustainable development. In addition to being a comprehensive environmental bill, Grenelle 2 implicitly defines the French sustainable development strategy for years to come.

The original Grenelle left France paralyzed by a general strike. Back then, the primary negotiators were the government, unions, and employers. In 2007, the Grenelle de l'environnement extended the consultation to five main stakeholder groups-the State, employers, unions, environmental NGOs, and local governments-to bring it more in line with the participatory nature of sustainable development.

On the climate front, France is likely to meet its current emissions reduction goals. The country has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and as a member of the European Union it must work with other member countries to achieve an average emissions reduction of 8 percent by 2012. Because French emissions have been low due to the extensive use of nuclear energy, the country has only to stabilize its emissions at 1990 levels. However, the European Union has more ambitious reduction goals for the post-Kyoto period (starting in 2013). In 2008, it set a target of reducing region-wide emissions 20 percent by 2020, and it is now considering increasing this goal to 30 percent.

Moreover, as one of the G8 countries who have agreed to cut their emissions 80 percent by 2050, France is being challenged internationally to curb its emissions beyond current goals. At the domestic level, the country's programmatic energy strategic law of July 13, 2005 sets a target of reducing national emissions 3 percent per year, resulting in a projected division of emissions by four by 2050 - so called "Factor 4."

To help achieve these commitments, Grenelle 2 includes various measures that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, it contains incentives to embed sustainability into French urban planning: so-called urban master plans (Schéma de Cohérence Territoriale) will be finalized before 2017 to enhance policy coherence between urban, industrial, farming, tourism, and natural zones, and also to help tackle urban sprawl. Grenelle 2 also allows for a possible exception for energy-efficient buildings to the Building Density Limit (COS), which specifies the maximum building density of a landed property allowed, by acreage. In general, Grenelle 2 makes great improvements regarding the energy efficiency of buildings. Currently, emissions from buildings account for around 18 percent of French greenhouse gas emissions.

The new law sets a target of reducing the average energy consumption of buildings nearly 40 percent by 2020, and puts a focus on advanced energy performance for both old and new buildings. New buildings built after 2012 are to consume less than 50 kilowatts per square meter, and those built after 2020 must be "energy positive," producing more energy than they consume. As of 2013, old buildings must be renovated at a rate of 400,000 buildings per year, with the renovation of public buildings starting before the end of 2012. Through this means, the government aims to reduce the energy consumption of public buildings by at least 40 percent and to cut their greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2020.

Additionally, as of 2012, renters of real estate must be informed about the energy performance of their buildings so that they can make energy costs part of their decision to rent a place or not. The transport sector is responsible for about 25 percent of French greenhouse gas emissions, making it essential to support alternatives to fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Grenelle 2 provides for a clarification of the capacities of local governments and pushes for the further development of public transportation schemes. It also encourages local governments to follow their European neighbors (among others London and Milan) by implementing urban tolls for cities of more than 300,000 inhabitants. Alternatives to conventional means of transportation are being encouraged as well, including self-service bike rental stations (such as Velib in Paris or Velo'v in Lyon) and car sharing, fostered by the creation of a new "label" that establishes standards and that will be set by decree. Grenelle 2 also aims to encourage the use and maintenance of hybrid and electric vehicles as well as the necessary infrastructure to power them.

In the renewables sector, Grenelle 2 sets a goal that 23 percent of France's energy use must come from a mix of renewable energy sources by 2020-most likely from hydropower (the nation's largest renewables source so far), wind power, and biomass. The law calls for regional climate and energy mapping to assess climate-related risks within the country as well as to determine domestic energy needs, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, adaptation strategies and monitoring instruments will be developed. In addition, local and regional authorities that are responsible for 50,000 inhabitants or more, as well as companies with over 500 employees, will be required to conduct emissions assessments.

The law also promotes electricity produced by renewable sources through the enhancement of various supporting tools. France's largest utility company, EdF, is already required to purchase electricity produced by certain renewable energy generators. Under Grenelle 2, local governments can also benefit from this purchase guarantee if they produce electricity from renewable sources. Moreover, any individual can now install photovoltaic panels at home and benefit from a "feed-in tariff" that guarantees producers of renewable energy a specified price for every megawatt-hour of power fed into the grid. To improve conditions for renewables, the electricity grid will be strengthened and enhanced in the coming years.

While all of these measures will likely help advance investments in renewable energy, particularly for solar technologies, Grenelle 2 imposes several barriers for the expansion of wind power, despite the creation of regional wind energy development schemes.

For one, windmills taller than 50 meters will now be subject to the same burdensome administrative procedures as other industrial facilities, under the so-called regulations "classifying facilities for environmental purposes" (ICPE). Also, although one of the advantages of renewable energy is to allow for decentralized, local energy production, only farms with at least five windmills will be granted a building permit. In effect, this will keep small-scale consumers such as famers from producing their own energy.

Furthermore, windmill implementation will be subject to zoning. Windmills must be at least 500 meters away from any area "designated for housing" - which includes not only sites inhabited today, but also those that might be developed in the future. Finally, wind companies are required to set aside financial warrants from the start of the construction for land restoration in the event that the windmill is later removed.

With the passing of Grenelle 2, the French government had hoped to build a reputation as a green economy pioneer. One of the great improvements is that the law shifts the focus from national energy security (which historically has paved the way for nuclear energy in France) to energy efficiency. Also, the Grenelle de l'Environnement will deeply transform the view of French environmental law as a whole, so that it is no longer restricted to strictly environmental issues ruled by the so-called Code de l'Environnement - the compilation of all environment-related legislation. For example, by amending the Urban Planning Code, Grenelle 2 marks a shift away from environmental regulation and toward a broader sustainable development agenda.

Nevertheless, much criticism abounds. Most significantly, the measures pose considerable challenges for wind power development. As such, they represent a serious obstacle to reaching France's ambitious renewable energy targets and to making a quick transition to a low-carbon economy.

In July 2009, the French Parliament nearly unanimously adopted the Grenelle 1 bill, outlining the Grenelle de l'Environnement's general commitments and goals. In contrast, when the Grenelle 2 went before parliament earlier this year, there wasn't much of a consensus. Expectations were high at first, but later led to considerable frustration among many environmentalists. Some stakeholders even left the negotiations; the organization "Sortir du nucléaire" (Out of Nuclear), for example, pulled out fairly early once it became clear that nuclear power would remain at the core of France's energy strategy. Likewise, the Hulot Foundation abandoned the consultation process in March 2010 shortly after the government renounced establishing a carbon tax.

Despite these tensions, the government decided to apply "accelerated proceedings" to the deliberations, which gave the National Assembly, the lower house of France's bicameral parliament, only 30 hours in May to review some 1,600 amendments. Unlike in the United States, where conservatives dominate the opposition to a climate bill, in France, liberals and ecologists voted against the bill drafted by Sarkozy's conservative party because they were concerned about its lack of coherence with more ambitious goals and with the President's early promise of fostering a "green revolution." Despite this resistance, however, the bill passed because the government's party held a majority of seats in the Assembly.

Two final observations can help to illuminate Grenelle's outcomes. First, most of French environmental law has its origin at the European level. With Grenelle 2, France transposed many EU directives into French law, including the European Commission's climate and energy package for 2020 that aims at a 20 percent share of renewables, a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, and energy efficiency improvements of 20 percent. With this corresponding relationship, it seems like Grenelle 2 will enable France to keep up with Europe's ambitious environmental goals.

Alexander Ochs is director of the Climate and Energy program at the Worldwatch Institute and Camille Serre is a research intern with Worldwatch. They can be reached at aochs@worldwatch.org.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch blog ReVolt. For permission to republish this report, please contact Cristina Adkins at cadkins@worldwatch.org.