The strangest campaign for a presidential election ended on April 24th, with incumbent President Macron getting a second five-year term at the helm of France. Strangest, for one, because rather hushed debates took place under the ominous shadow of the war waged by Russia in Ukraine, two thousand kilometers to the East. But also strange because the elephant in the room, French citizens’ supposed biggest worry, according to opinion institutes, how to mitigate climate change and deal with the future of our environment, was put on the back-burner. Climate change was relegated to just a few percent of media time by the impact on everyday life of inflation caused by the consequences on global trade of the pandemic aftermath and of Ukraine war on energy and food supply.
But losing a battle is not losing the climate war and another election, of representatives in the National Assembly, will take place in June. Historically expected to be a landslide victory for any newly elected president’s movement, a renewed alliance of the left-wing and ecologist parties, with a rather radical program, could play havoc with this self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing back ecology to the front of discussions. President Macron, having been described by the eco-radicals as the “president of climate inaction”, in front of these not so much low-noise signals, is proposing a novel approach to deal with climate change or adaptation, a long-term affair that does not stop, and get modified, every five years at the next presidential election: make the Prime Minister fully and solely in charge of climate, responsible of “ecological planification”, a true left-wing concept. When, today, the Prime Minister is “only” the Minister of Ecology’s hierarchy, as of other Ministers.
In essence, the Prime Minister would have a dedicated “climate” cabinet, likely with numerous technical advisors, overseeing the activity of two ministries, one in charge of energy transition, one in charge of territorial ecology:
To do what, compared with the last five years?
The government publicly says its 2017-2021 action was adequate, enough to meet the 2030 objective to reduce the country emissions by 40%, but the EU now wants 55%. And the last “normal” year saw a yearly reduction of GHG emissions of 1.9%, well below the estimated 2.7% to reach the 2030 target. So, continuity or acceleration for the next five years? The context of high inflation and limited growth is not supportive of any policy which would make energy more expensive for everyone.
Thus, many experts believe the carbon tax is dead, as it sparked the Yellow Vests uprising of 2018, a shapeless movement still somewhat active in 2022, at least capable of quick resurrection and nuisance, especially with the high energy prices of today, with us to last for the whole presidential term?
Nuclear energy came back from the dead last year and even becomes acceptable by some ecologists, as the natural gas transition, which was a front-runner in the last decade, suffers from the geopolitical situation in the East. Re-creating the nuclear program of the 70es will take time, though, and IPCC keeps reminding us we do not have time.
Electrification (green) and biomass are likely the big issues, as mobilization is in years, rather than in decades. The ministry of energy transition could then well be about three key activities, namely regulation, support & subsidies, direct investment, so as to accelerate the change from fossil energy production and use to low-carbon technologies, whether mature, like biofuels, or in R&D, like hydrogen. With an “all of the above” approach, a diversity of low-carbon solutions, rather than an arbitrary choice in favor of one magic solution, a recipe that has led us to the fossil energy dependence that is causing so many problems today. A strategy reliant on local advantages, wind on the coasts, sun in the south, biomass in agricultural and forestry-rich regions.
But will financing be there, will social cost be affordable?
Once the legislative elections are behind us, the government agenda for the term will be finalized: continuity or acceleration, the jury is out.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).