In 2016 the OECD published its third Environmental Examination of France, following those published in 1997 and 2005. In conjunction with other sources of information, it provides an opportunity to take stock of the results of French environmental policy.

France catching up

Until the mid-2000s, French environmental policy was unambitious (although some elements have been in place since the 1970s). A significant example concerning the property and construction industry: the European Directive No 2002/91/EC on the energy efficiency of buildings was published on 16 December 2002. Nearly four years later, in early 2006, no text implementing the Directive had been published in France. The gap vis-à-vis notably the Northern Europe countries and Germany was therefore considerable.

Increasing awareness of the environment was demonstrated in France in 2007 with the productive negotiation of the Grenelle Environment Forum[1] between the state, local authorities, employers, trade unions and environmental associations. The process lead to the two founding laws of the French environmental policy and its many implementing regulations: the Grenelle 1 law No 2009-967 of 3 August 2009 and the Grenelle 2 law No 2010-788 of 12 July 2010. We emphasized the importance of this new legislative framework and this new context in our editorial of August 2011.

If the same symbolic example is taken, the French regulations implementing the second European Directive No 2010/31/EU of 19 May 2010 on the energy efficiency of buildings were mostly published quickly, some being issued even before the apparition of the directive. In this field of action, the gap with Germany was significantly reduced.

After this legislative progress in 2009-2010, further progress was made in 2015-2016. Two major pieces of legislation were enacted: law No. 2015-992 of 17 August 2015 on the energy transition and law No. 2016-1087 of 8 August 2016 on biodiversity. Our editorial of September 2015 highlighted the strategic nature of the law on the energy transition. In this context, the Paris Agreement of 12 December 2015 in the framework of the COP 21, which, for the first time, defines a global action framework for the fight against climate change, is notably a success for French diplomacy.

Positive results

We will focus our concise analysis of the OECD report on quantified results, which mostly involve changes between 2000 and 2012/14, that is to say essentially before the impact in the field of the four laws voted in 2009-2010 and 2015-2016.

Positive results are highlighted by the OECD.

First major success: the decoupling of GDP growth and emissions of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) has been initiated. The country undertook in Kyoto to stabilize GHG emissions between 1990 and 2012, and in fact reduced them. The French economy is a low carbon economy, but remember that this result is primarily due to the weight of nuclear power in electricity production.

Other tangible results: the public budgets for research development for renewable energy and energy efficiency have greatly increased, as well as the number of patents for technology relating to the fight against climate change and the number of SMEs who are holders of the environmental certification ISO 14001.

Several major French companies are world leaders in the fields of water, waste management and clean technology. In the field of new construction, the 2012 thermal regulations are amongst the most ambitious in the world. Concerning biodiversity, the number of protected areas has increased and budgets have been significantly increased.

The OECD also underlines the potential impact of the laws voted in 2009-2010 and 2015-2016.

Acute deficiencies

However, the OECD points out the extent of the deficiencies that need to be addressed. The target of 23% renewable energy in 2020 in final energy consumption will not be met, the instability of regulations being one of the causes. Efforts must now concern the hyper ambitious objective of a renewable energy share of 32% in 2030.

Practices of three sectors must be profoundly changed: intensive agriculture, which results in particular in a sharp increase in the use of pesticides and water pollution, the automotive sector which is a major consumer of diesel, the property and construction sector that is slow to improve the existing stock whose energy consumption is increasing.

Property and construction are also stakeholders in the artificialisation of soil, which rose alarmingly, and in the increasing amount of waste, of which three quarters are from construction.

The progress to be made also affects biodiversity: three quarters of the habitats of European community interest and more than half of the species of European community interest have an unfavourable conservation status.

A last alarming point: the weight of environmental taxation in the economy decreased during the period.

Defenders of the status quo

The magnitude of the resistance to change shows that we are seeing a real and profound change in the ways of production, of consumption, of use and of life, and not a simple “greening” of the economy.

The global synthetic benchmark of environmental policies established in 2016 by the Bertelsmann Foundation ranks France in 14th place in a set of 41 developed countries, far behind the countries of Northern Europe, Germany and Switzerland, after the United Kingdom but ahead of Italy and Spain, and well ahead of the United States and Canada. The Foundation highlights the significant presence of lobbying in resistance to change in France.

The status quo is indeed defended by powerful lobbies, the nuclear lobby, the agriculture lobby, the car lobby, and the inaction of a large number of (big and small) leaders of the property and construction sector.

An irreversible trend

But the movement is irreversible. The United States and China, which account for nearly 40% of global GHG emissions, have ratified the Paris agreement of the COP 21. Big investors (Bank of America, AXA, Société Générale …) are withdrawing from coal.

The Hague district court sentenced the Dutch state on 24 June 2015, following a complaint by the environmental association Urgenda, for not achieving reduction targets for GHG emissions.

The prosecutor of the State of New York sued ExxonMobil on 4 November 2015, for lobbying to hide the results of scientific research on climate change and for inadequate information to shareholders on the risks associated with business activities in the area of fossil fuels. Peabody Energy, the largest US coal producer, has been in a similar court case for the last two years.

Concrete actions in the territories

Laws are only one side of the story. The quantified results of environmental policy are essentially the outcome of concrete actions in the territories, connecting and uniting motivations of local politicians, (big and small) business leaders, associations and citizens against the lobbies.

Despite the currently fashionable pessimism displayed by the majority of politicians, intellectuals and the media, practical men and women are moving forward in a very encouraging way. I would take just one example, in the most difficult field of energy transition in the real estate sector, the energy renovation of existing housing stock. The vitality of some French regional initiatives (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne Franche-Comté, Grand-Est, Hauts-de-France, Normandy) described in the report on New Dynamics of Housing Renovation by the French Sustainable Building Plan is astonishing.

[1]  Grenelle Street is the street in Paris where the Ministry of Labour is located. In this Ministry, the “Grenelle negotiations” were held between government, employers and trade unions after the May1968 workers’ and students’ general strike.