Green Deal or Great Disillusion? France Passes Climate-Friendly Legislation (Part 2 of 2)

Camille Serre and Alexander Ochs

In Part 1 of this blog, we described the climate and energy measures that France plans to pursue as part of its new environmental law, Grenelle 2. This set of policies suggests that France may in fact be paving the way toward a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, the picture is tarnished by an ongoing controversy about renewable energy development in the country.

Windmills in French Brittany – Flickr Creative Commons / Nicolas Grout

Grenelle 2 certainly contains some positive measures in the renewables sector. For instance, it 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 are helpful, 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.

Second, it is critical to see the bill as the result of a compromise between important groups of stakeholders with different interests. Although the targets are perhaps not as ambitious as many would like them to be, there is now at least a consensus on public goals across French society—a convergence that the United States and many other countries are still far from reaching. Altogether, Grenelle 2 contains both promising and rather disappointing measures from a progressive point of view. But it is at least a step in the right direction. So let’s hope that the implementing decrees of Grenelle 2 will bring real changes.

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