Climate: why France’s “low-carbon national strategy” turns into a headachehttps://www.lejdd.fr/societe/climat-pourquoi-la-strategie-nationale-bas-carbone-de-la-france-vire-au-casse-tete-137007
Neither fast enough or inclusive of enough pieces on the chess board – but what do you expect from a stock market exploiter?
On May 22, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced that the “National Low Carbon Strategy” (SNBC), the roadmap setting the country’s emission trajectories by 2050, was being revised. The current roadmap, the “SNBC-2” for insiders, expires in December 2023. The “SNBC-3” must now align with our European commitments: in December 2020, the European Union (EU) had raised its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 55% between 1990 and 2030, compared to 40% previously.
A hell of a step of a staircase to cross in just 7 years.
Multiply by three the rate of decrease in emissions
The 55% target applies to all greenhouse gases, including international transport. It concerns net emissions from CO2 removals by land use changes, measured by national inventories. It must be achieved without the use of international carbon credits.
The constraint therefore relates to the gross emissions that must be reduced and to the absorption capacity of atmospheric carbon that must be strengthened. Let’s start by examining gross emissions.
Since 1990, these emissions have decreased by a quarter. The entire decrease was achieved between 2005 and 2022. From one year to the next, these emissions undergo fluctuations that can be significant. Over the period 2005-2022, they follow a trend, statistically robust, and independent of political alternations: an annual decrease of 1.8%, or 8.5 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent per year.
The extension of this trend would lead to emissions of 340 Mt of CO2 equivalents in 2030. However, the ecological planning cell attached to the Prime Minister estimates that 270 Mt would have to be targeted to be in line with the European objective of -55%. To close the gap in 7 years, it is therefore necessary not to double as is often said, but to triple the pace of the effort: to go from an annual decrease of 1.8% to 5% or from 8.5 Mt to 17.5 Mt per year.
If France emits only 270 Mt of CO2 equivalent in 2030, it will not have reduced its emissions by 55% but by 48% compared to 1990. The national transposition of the European objective is indeed carried out via a dual mechanism.
The vast majority of emissions from industry and the energy sector are directly regulated by the European CO2 quota trading system. For this category of issue, the constraint is shared at European level and there are no specific national obligations.
For other emissions, mainly located in the transport, agriculture, buildings and waste sectors, the transition from the European objective to the national objectives is carried out via a so-called “effort-sharing” regulation. As part of this sharing, France must reduce emissions from these sectors by 47.5% by 2030, compared to 2005. One of the biggest works of the SNBC is to divide this reduction target by sector and by economic agent.
Who reduces what?
One way to prioritize the actions to be taken would be to use the criterion of the cost of the tonne of CO2 avoided: if it costs 20 euros to reduce emissions by Action A and 100 euros by Action B, five times more emissions are reduced with the same initial stake by retaining Action A rather than Action B. It would be a shame to deprive yourself of it.
Conducted under the authority of economist Patrick Criqui, important work has been done to identify these costs by sector of activity. This toolbox seems relatively little used in the arbitrations proposed by the Matignon ecological planning cell. Reduction potentials are estimated by technical-economic methods that adapt to the specific characteristics of each sector.
Representing a third of national emissions alone, the transport sector crystallizes the puzzle of the SNBC revaluation. In 2022, transport emissions were 5% higher than their 1990 level, compared to a decrease of a third in all other sectors. The SNBC-3 project, prepared in Matignon, aims to reduce by 30% between 2022 and 2030. How to achieve this?
The two main levers identified are the electrification of road transport and the modal shift to rail. They both require substantial investments that will have only a limited effect by 2030: it takes time to electrify existing fleets of vehicles and even more to build the railway infrastructure to resume traffic on the road.
To aim for a 30% decrease by 2030, it is therefore necessary to act simultaneously on demand by operating levers that have a faster impact on emissions: reduce unnecessary travel, expand the practice of carpooling, promote public transport and soft mobility, limit the speed of travel on road and highways.
These levers, called “s sobriety”, refer to the uses that citizens make of existing infrastructure. These uses are impacted by the prices and budgetary constraints of households, but not only. In 2022, the government subsidized energy prices with the famous “tariff shield”. The effects were very different on the electricity and gas consumption of households for which messages of sobriety were heard and on fuels whose consumption increased significantly in the absence of such messages.
This sharing between actions on demand and supply is important for the assessment of the economic impacts of the climate roadmap. In their report to the Prime Minister on the issue, economists Jean Pisani-Ferry and Selma Mahfouz assume that 15% of emission reductions are obtained through sobriety. Other scenarios, such as the one developed by the Negawatt association, rather rely on 33%.
This assumption is crucial for the calculation of the investments required to implement the SNBC. Part of the emission reductions resulting from sobriety require little or no additional investment. But sobriety cannot be decreed. It involves citizen membership, difficult to obtain when the social context is degraded.
An important lesson from the report is that the additional investment required by the transition, estimated at just over 2% of GDP, will not boost growth. It will result in a decrease in the apparent productivity of capital. This point is essential: what reduces CO2 emissions is not investing in decarbonized sources. It is to divest fossil sources by withdrawing or converting capital related to the production or use of fossil energy. Productive capacity is therefore not increased by low-carbon investment and divestment must be financed by ensuring industrial and professional reconversions.
Attention, living carbon!
To aim for climate neutrality, it is not enough to make the energy transition by freeing yourself from dependence on fossil energy. A second systemic transformation must be carried out concerning activities working on “living carbon”: agriculture, forestry, organic waste management. We are very ill-prepared for it.
In the SNBC-3 project, the expected decrease in agricultural emissions, the second largest emitter sector after transport, is much more modest than those targeted in the other sectors. It results more from incremental developments than from the beginning of a systemic transition leading to a shift to agricultural models based on the diversity of life to produce resiliently and intensively per hectare. However, it is indeed a system change that agriculture needs to reduce its specific emissions and contribute to the protection of the national carbon sink by protecting its living soils to store CO2.
Because the most worrying development of the last ten years does not concern the insufficient reduction in emissions, but the loss of atmospheric CO2 storage capacity by the natural environment. If the forest area continues to increase, tree growth is subject to the combined effects of droughts, bad weather, fires and the rise of diseases and pests. Result: the capacity of the national carbon sink has been divided by three since 2005.
The recent European regulation assigns France the objective of absorbing 34 Mt of atmospheric CO2 in 2030, while only 17 Mt were absorbed in 2022. This will be the main puzzle of the next SNBC: how to double the absorption capacity of the national carbon sink when we have divided it by three over the last fifteen years?
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