French President Emmanuel Macron won praise for putting the Amazon forest fires at the top of the global agenda, but back at home, green advocates would like to see less talk and more action.
Two years since pledging to “Make Our Planet Great Again” after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Macron’s domestic green achievements have not lived up to his promise.
An attempt to increase taxes on fossil fuels crumbled in the face of protests, the expansion of renewable energy is still hindered by red tape and legacy power plants have not yet been shut down.
“On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron deserves credit for almost all his speeches” on the environment, said Arnaud Gossement, a Paris-based lawyer who works for clean power developers. “On the other hand, most of his actions fall short.”
Like fellow European leaders, Macron is walking a fine line between growing public concern that the climate is changing and the immediate cost to households of the transition to low-carbon energy.
The president is pulled in one direction by those who seek to preserve jobs in the nuclear industry, the oil and gas business, and farming, and in the other by proponents of wind and solar power, cleaner vehicles and soil protection.
The ferocity of the protests against tax increases on gasoline, in which so-called “Yellow Vests” protesters blocked roads and fuel depots, burned vehicles on the streets of Paris and ransacked banks, underscores the risk of getting the balance wrong.
As world leaders gathered last month in the French resort of Biarritz for a meeting of the G7, Macron decided to tear up the formal agenda and focus the summit instead on the record number of forest fires ravaging the Amazon.
He accused Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of lying about efforts to protect forests and threatening to torpedo an EU trade deal with South America, a proposal several of the bloc’s other leaders rejected.
Even this forceful approach on a crucial environmental issue drew mixed reviews in France. Former French ecology minister Nicolas Hulot, who resigned a year ago for what he described as a lack of action on a number of environmental issues, said in a tweet that the president must follow up his tough words with a ban on imports of Brazilian agricultural products.
The French president’s office did not respond to requests for comments.
When it comes to domestic policy, Macron’s pledge to boost wind and solar power has been marred by an insufficient reduction in red tape that hampers clean power developments, said Gossement, who is also a board member of French solar business federation Enerplan.
Promises to close a nuclear plant from next year and to shut coal-fired power plants by 2022 have yet to be enacted, he said.
For Gwenaelle Avice-Huet, the head of renewables at French utility Engie SA, Macron has positive achievements, but could go further.
“There’s been a real effort in recent years to simplify proceedings” for renewable projects, Avice-Huet said.
The Energy and Climate draft bill and the country’s energy road map “are very positive items to quicken renewables in France,” she said.
The bill, due to be adopted in Parliament in coming weeks, aims to trim the use of fossil fuels by 40 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 by cutting red tape for renewable energy projects, and adding incentives for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of homes.
The legislation would also prod most coal-fired power plants, which provided 1.1 percent of the nation’s electricity last year, to close by 2022.
The law sets a road map to replace part of the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants with forms of renewable energy by 2035, and France will aim to become carbon-neutral by 2050.
The government is stepping up tenders for solar and offshore wind projects. Macron has introduced or extended subsidies to boost home renovation, the replacement of heating fuel by more efficient gas boilers and the purchase of cleaner vehicles.
France still needs to provide more incentives for the development of biogas, and simplify proceedings for the replacement of old wind turbines with bigger, more efficient ones, a process that currently takes about seven years, Avice-Huet said.
The government should also free up some of its unused land to develop solar farms, a policy it is currently considering, she said.
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