In an editorial on the Le Monde website, three leaders of energy companies called for reducing energy consumption. But the French government has been too slow in its efforts to encourage people to truly change their behaviour.
The need for public leadership on energy sufficiency
It is quite rare for companies to encourage their customers to buy less of the product they sell. Yet the heads of three French energy companies, TotalEnergies, EDF and Engie, have just launched a striking appeal, published on June 26 in Le Journal du dimanche. They urge the French to reduce their consumption of oil, electricity and gas.
Patrick Pouyanné, Jean-Bernard Lévy and Catherine MacGregor are alerting the public to the major disruptions that are weakening the French energy system. They write that the tensions linked to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as well as the reduction in nuclear and hydroelectric power production capacities are putting our supply under severe strain. They call for an “immediate, collective and massive” effort on the part of the French.
The strength and relevance of this appeal also underlines how public authorities have failed to discuss the topic of energy sufficiency. The energy crisis began in the summer of 2021 with a sharp rise in prices. Over the past four months, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has further aggravated this situation. Apart from a few occasional declarations, the government has been slow to launch a major campaign to encourage the French to truly change their behavior in energy matters. “The price of energy threatens our cohesion,” claim the business leaders in their op-ed. It’s a statement that would undoubtedly have even more repercussions if it were pronounced and adopted at the highest level of government.
A surprising efficiency
While presenting his plan for the transformation of the electricity mix at the end of February, Emmanuel Macron could have taken the opportunity to make the French aware of their consumption. The introduction of an energy allowance and of the 18-cent discount on the price of gasoline could also have been key moments to launch a national mobilization that has been slow to take shape. While the German government triggered an alert threshold on the country’s gas supply, calling on its citizens to make a “national effort,” France is content with a scattered and barely audible message.
Two events can explain the government’s caution. First, the Yellow Vests movement, which broke out over a clumsy gas tax to speed up the energy transition. In addition, the French are just emerging from two years of constraints related to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is undoubtedly necessary to show the greatest care to convince them to give up part of their energy comfort.
This consists first of all in reminding us that sufficiency, in its simplest form, can be surprisingly effective. The examples of the 1973 oil crisis and the Fukushima nuclear accident show that when efforts are massive and coordinated, energy savings are substantial. In the Japanese case, electricity consumption fell by 15% thanks to basic actions. The rush for air conditioners during the last heat wave shows that there is still a lot of progress to be made in terms of energy awareness.
We must also insist on the virtues of savings that provide answers to the three major challenges we face: purchasing power, the environmental transition and energy independence. Finally, the government must clearly explain that sufficiency is a lesser constraint than rationing. If sufficiency is not accepted, then rationing will be the inevitable solution.