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How France Became a Global Clean Energy Leader

Since coming to power last May, President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly emphasised the importance of combating and mitigating the effects of climate change. Southern European countries are following closely behind as he leads the EU – and the world – towards a greener future. But how did Macron earn this role, and what is France doing to retain it?

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The French government plans to release a draft of its 2019-2023 and 2024-2028 energy programmes (PPE) this month. Many expect that the PPE will outline how France plans to diversify its power mix. As of now, 75 percent of French electricity production derives from nuclear energy. Critics have urge the country to switch to alternatives such as renewable power sources, but reliable nuclear reactors contribute to France’s position as the world’s largest net exporter of electricity and are responsible for 3 million euros in revenue per year.

When France first sought to achieve energy independence from foreign suppliers, its lack of fossil fuel reserves and hydroelectric-friendly rivers steered the nation toward nuclear energy. Unlike Germany, France refuses to phase out its nuclear sources without having renewable replacements ready. This winter, Macron told France 2 television programme that his priority for France, Europe, and the world, was to limit carbon emissions. He empashised that nuclear is an emission-free energy source.

While opponents believe his talks on the inexistence of “Planet B” suggest that Macron is practicing environmental grandstanding, recent policy moves prove otherwise. At the end of last year, France became the first nation in the world to commit to ending fossil fuel production when it announced a total extraction ban by 2040. Since 2018 began, the president has vowed to shut all coal power plants in France by 2023, has announced a study to determine the potential of harnessing tidal energy, simplified the nation’s wind project approval process, and entered a bilateral agreement with Canada to combat climate change.

And while the European Commission was negotiating its 2021-2027 budget, France was one of 14 member states to sign a joint statement expressing support for a greener EU financial plan.

In further efforts, France has allocated 7 billion euros to accelerate the development of its renewable energy industry (with other funds directed at improved energy efficiency and cleaner vehicle manufacturing). Macron also set aside 56 million euros of French funding for his “Make the Planet Great Again” grant, which offers climatologists around the world French residency and the chance to conduct research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

In March, Macron announced that France will spend an additional 700 million euros before 2022 to help developing countries cultivate solar energy projects, emphasising Europe’s duty to extend financial aid as the US continues detaching itself from climate initiatives, i.e., the Paris Agreement. In May, France’s National Solar Energy Institute (INES) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Indian National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) to encourage areas of cooperation that can spur clean energy production in both countries. This is similar to an MoU India and Greece signed earlier this year. Then, last month, the French government approved six long-delayed offshore wind projects that Macron tweeted “will bring about renewable energy more quickly and less expensively”.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) adopted the 32 percent target suggested by France, a compromise for the far-ranging energy positions of the bloc’s 28 Member States that still raises the bar from the previously agreed upon 27 percent.

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Other Southern European countries are following suit when it comes to increasing their implementation of renewables. Last year Malta increased its solar energy generation by more than 20 percent, while Portugal supplied its entire electricity demand for the month of March solely on clean energy sources. Copyright: Efetova Anna/Shutterstock.com

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It’s also worth noting that in 2017, 18.5 percent of electricity consumption in France was a result of renewable power, and that wind and solar power capacities improved by more than15 percent and 9 percent year-on-year, respectively. These figures are still notably far from the county’s 23 percent target for 2020, but they signal that France is moving in the right direction.

Last month, popular French Minister of the Environment, Nicolas Hulot, unveiled a plan to develop hydrogen energy in an effort to close the country’s renewables gap and expand its energy empire. The plan focuses on applying decarbonised hydrogen to clean the industrial industry and power cars, as well as exploring hydrogen’s capability as a form of renewable energy storage. On June 7, French electric utility company, Engie SA, inaugurated the nation’s first alternative multi-fuel station at the Rungis International Market in Paris, a project which is projected to expand significantly over the next decade.

Macron favours advocating loudly for educated changes in the country’s energy portfolio while taking gradual, well-researched steps toward realistic goals. Still, in a bloc where some fossil fuel-reliant nations are resisting climate policies, Macron faces a tough challenge – especially given that UK Prime Minister Theresa May will soon be removed from EU decision-making and German Chancellor Angela Merkel struggles to balance the complexities of the country’s coalition government and conciliatory migration deals. Luckily, some EU Member States have taken his impassioned words to heart.

In fact, nations already strong on renewables like Italy and Spain were pushing for the EU to set a 35 percent renewable target rather than the compromised 32 percent that France proposed. Both of these countries have welcomed new governments this year, which seemingly come with bolstered ecological support. Spain has pledged to reverse recent regulations contrary to clean energy efforts. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez even merged the former Ministries for Environment and for Energy and appointed “Ecological Transition Minister” Teresa Ribera, a well-known climate action advocate who supported Spain’s ambitious plan to phase out coal by 2025. In a similar turn of events, the newly appointed prime minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, addressed the need to hasten the country’s decarbonisaton process in his inaugural speech.

A final version of France’s PPE isn’t expected until late 2018, but the draft should provide a clear picture of what’s to come. As we can see from French efforts, combating climate change isn’t just about making speeches or agreeing to goals, but implementing domestic and lateral policies and programmes to reach them. It requires concrete laws and tangible action. And if the bloc’s future looks anything like its recent past – with renewable energy production increasing by two-thirds between 2006-2016 – an EU run entirely on clean energy isn’t as outrageous as fossil fuel producers want us to believe.

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Elizabeth Smith

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and editor who has lived in America, Czechia, Spain, and the UK. She holds a media studies and journalism degree from New York University. Her clips can be found on NBC News, Business Insider, and Huffington Post among others. She is currently based in northern England.

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