France has not yet put in place the overall strategy needed to achieve a “leap forward” in its climate action

In an interview with Audrey Garric on the Le Monde website, the president of the High Council on Climate, Corinne Le Quéré , observes that while the French response to global warming isn’t bad, there is no guarantee that the country will be able to meet its climate targets.

Corinne Le Quéré is the president of the High Council on Climate, an independent body of 13 experts set up by Emmanuel Macron in 2018 to assess the government’s climate strategy. The French-Canadian climate scientist is also a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia in the UK.


Corinne Le Quéré: ‘In France, we’re not seeing the necessary deceleration in emissions’

Corinne Le Quéré, president of the French High Council on Climate, believes that France has not yet put in place the overall strategy needed to achieve a “leap forward” in its climate action. France is part of the “pack” of countries that have managed to reduce their emissions for more than a decade, but is not among the “leading countries.” The key challenges remain in transport and agriculture.

The hottest summer in Europe, deadly floods in Pakistan and dramatic drought in the Horn of Africa. What is your reaction after 2022 was marked by a series of climate disasters?

Last year, we passed an important milestone: There was a realization that climate change is here, and that its consequences are very strong and affect all countries, not just the poorest. France was particularly exposed, with heatwaves, droughts, fires and intense rainfall. The connection is now being made between human activity and climate change and this has elicited great concern.

However, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase worldwide.

Emissions of CO2, the main greenhouse gas, are indeed continuing to increase, but at a slower rate than over the decade from 2000 to 2010. We are seeing an increase of around 0.5% per year, compared to 3% previously. We’re still far from the deep and steady decline in emissions needed to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050. But at the same time, we’re beginning to see the impact of public policy, international agreements, and falling prices for renewable energy and green technologies. Nearly 3,000 climate or energy laws and measures have been passed around the world, and the number is growing very rapidly. This gives some hope.

Do these developments suggest that emissions will peak soon?

That isn’t guaranteed. Despite all the crises we’re going through at the moment – the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and international tensions – countries are still mobilized for the climate. But if we remain in the status quo, if there are no additional efforts, we won’t move towards a reduction in emissions.

In France, greenhouse gas emissions fell by 0.6% in the first half of 2022, yet they need to reach -4% for the whole year. Is this worrying?

Yes, if these data are confirmed. We’re not seeing the necessary deceleration in emissions. After the very small decrease in the first half of the year (which Europe is also experiencing, with – 0.8%), carbon emissions would now need to be very significantly reduced in the second half of the year. It remains possible, as the energy crisis has significant implications for energy use.

Our response to global warming isn’t bad: France is part of a group of 24 countries whose emissions have been decreasing for over a decade. It’s not among the leading countries, but it is in the pack. The problem is that France is having a really hard time accelerating this decline in emissions. They have decreased by 1.7% per year on average over the last ten years, and the pace has not changed. At the moment, we’re not seeing the beginning of a radical change that would allow us to do this.

“Nearly 3,000 climate or energy laws and measures have been passed around the world, and the number is growing very rapidly. This gives some hope.”

You called for a “surge” of climate action in the country in your June 2022 annual report. Has there been any progress since then?

It’s too early to tell. There are positive signs: the government has raised climate policy to the Prime Ministerial level, and the secrétariat général à la planification écologique (General Secretariat for Environmental Planning) is now in place. We are also seeing many beginnings of action in several areas, including on the evaluation of laws or the training of senior civil servants. But we’re not yet seeing the overall strategy needed to achieve a leap forward on the road to carbon neutrality. We must wait until the government has updated its national low-carbon strategy. For the moment, we cannot guarantee that France will be able to meet its climate objectives. As we saw last summer, the country is not ready when faced with the impacts of climate change (heat waves, droughts, etc.).

What are the sectors in which we need to accelerate the most?

The transportation sector, the largest emitter (with 30% of national emissions), is a major obstruction, especially because demand is only increasing. Emissions rose by 7% in this sector in the first half of 2022, due to aviation bouncing back after Covid-19, but also from road transport. There’s a lot of work still to be done on cars, accelerating the – inevitable – shift to electric vehicles, but also developing public transport.

The agricultural sector is also problematic. We’ll have to review agricultural practices and the use of land, and also increase emission reduction and adaptation targets, because this sector is extremely affected by global warming.

How do you rate the government’s response to the energy crisis?

The response to the energy crisis must not derail climate action, something recognized by both France and Europe. The government has taken some positive measures on climate. These include the acceleration of renewable energies, the deployment of nuclear power and the energy-saving plan. Others are harmful, such as the “bouclier tarifiaire” (the French government’s €45 billion in measures to tackle energy price rises in 2023), something which finances fossil fuels and removes the “price signal”, which is important in encouraging people to adopt low-carbon habits. The construction of new liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure could generate stranded assets [whose value is diminished by changing constraints, such as environmental ones] and risks leading to increases in emissions. Finally, there is the reopening of the Saint-Avold coal-fired power plant, but this issue is more problematic at the European level – France has almost no coal-fired power plants left. These emergency measures must remain as targeted and temporary as possible.

“We often hear, especially from young people, that nothing is happening. In reality, there’s a lot going on, it’s just that we’re not at the right level.”

What do you think of the government’s energy savings plan?

It’s a positive piece of work, but it still needs to be adjusted and completed. In the immediate future, we have measures that are going in the right direction, but we can’t yet know whether they’ll allow us to meet the goal of reducing final energy consumption by 10% by 2024. Are they at the right level? Will they continue over time? It’s somewhat symptomatic of our climate action.

Climate unfriendly financing doubled in 2022 according to the Climate Action Network. Is France investing enough in the energy transition?

Our government is one of the only ones to watch for climate-friendly (“green”) and climate-unfriendly (“brown”) spending in its budget, which is something positive. On the other hand, it’s not yet clear how it will put an end to the “brown” spending partly linked to the energy crisis. Moreover, we need to plan for long-term financing. The low-carbon transition requires major investments, estimated at around €100 billion per year for the public and private sectors. We have recommended that a multi-year budget of public funding for the low-carbon transition be drawn up. This is fundamental for guiding companies, for example in the energy renovation of buildings. The stimulus plan and the France 2030 plan have led to greater funding than in the past – they must be continued over time.

What do you think about civil disobedience by scientists?

It’s understandable, as climate change is intensifying. But there’s often a black-and-white perception of responses to global warming. We often hear, especially from young people, that nothing is happening. In reality, a lot is happening, it’s just that we’re not at the right level. I find that nuance is being lost in the public discourse on global warming, and that’s a shame. The response to climate change can’t be instantaneous.

Yet if the actions are becoming more radical, this is because scientific reports show that there’s no more time to spare.

We cannot say “Tomorrow, we will change all gas heating systems to heat pumps,” or “We will renovate 36 million homes,” because we have to plan the supply chains, find the craftsmen, and find the subsidies. This is why we must respond urgently, but through a long-term planning system that is manageable and deployable within the economic, structural and physical limits of society as a whole.

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