France and the ecological new deal

France's president has urged China to commit to sustainable development. Wang Dongying talked to Brice Lalonde, the French climate-change ambassador, and asked him what China can learn from France's new green initiatives.

With its per capita greenhouse-gas emissions 21% below the European average, France is aiming high in its hopes for green growth. The country has recently pledged to play a leading role in the EU in tackling climate change, and expressed its hopes for an ecological “New Deal” in China. Dongying Wang caught up with France’s climate change ambassador, Brice Lalonde, and asked him about trade, energy and the low-carbon economy.

Dongying Wang: France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, revealed a series of national environmental policies in late October, resulting from the Grenelle Environment Forum, a five-way dialogue involving trade unions, businesses, NGOs, elected representatives and the administration. France expects this to usher in greater transparency of environmental information, principles which have also been urged in countries like China to tackle worsening environmental issues. Why has made France adopted this new approach to government decision-making?

Brice Lalonde: As soon as he was elected, the Nicolas Sarkozy said that combating climate change was his priority. He wanted to discuss the best way to implement this priority with major stakeholders, including a very popular NGO leader named Nicolas Hulot, who had been lobbying all the candidates during the presidential election. This lead to the “Grenelle” process.

DW: Carbon-cost consideration and a range of ecological solutions are being discussed as key principles on which France is pursuing its climate-change policy. How do you think this will transform the way in which France grows? And what challenges will France face during this transformation?

BL: France has already experienced a set of policies to reduce the share of fossil fuels in its energy mix. Eighty percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power. We have designed fast trains to avoid using too many domestic flights and we produce small and efficient cars.

We have now decided on major programmes to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, increase public transportation in our cities and expand the use of renewable energy. We shall modify our tax system to favor low-carbon activities.

DW: France’s has great ambitions for organic agriculture, intending to expand its share of land use to 20% by 2020, from the current 2%. Can France really develop organic agriculture within the EU when it takes over its presidency in the second half of 2008?

BL: France has a strong agriculture and believes it can produce in a more environmentally friendly way without reducing yields. At the same time, the European Union is moving its common agriculture policy in the same direction.

DW: What is your vision of a “zero-carbon economy”? What do you think are the main obstacles to such development?

BL: We all have to invent it. On the supply side, we shall probably have an array of different solutions – either decentralised or on the grid. Perhaps hydrogen, or a similar gas, will be our main energy vector. On the demand side, we shall have to find a low-carbon way of living, which will probably mean less energy intensive.

DW: France recently called for a worldwide economic and ecological “New Deal” at the United Nations. What did this mean?

BL: President Sarkozy believes sustainable development is the goal. He thinks the idea is not to stay with end-of-pipe solutions, or incremental reductions of carbon dioxide emissions, but to reinvent economic growth on an environment-friendly manner, and that this requires a strong international cooperation.

DW: Sarkozy has also suggested that imports from abroad should comply with French environmental regulations. (An international approach such as this might have helped prevent some of the recent recalls of Chinese-made products.) In China, over 70% of overseas investment in the country is in the manufacturing industry, and this must be partly due to the country’s weak environmental regulations. What kind of international policies would you suggest to ensure a greener system of global trade? Could carbon-labelling be an option?

BL: Business goes to China much more because it has become a huge market, and the cost of labour is lower than in Europe, rather than to avoid environmental regulations. But it is true that the issue of fair competition is becoming central, and we must find a way of addressing it. France is in favour of carbon labeling.

DW: In October, the EU extended anti-dumping duties on imports of energy-saving light bulbs from China. At a time when the EU is chasing ambitious energy-saving targets to fight climate change, how should it balance its use of trade barriers to protect regional industrial production and its need to import greener products?

BL: The anti-dumping duty on exports of Chinese energy-saving bulbs to Europe is due to the fact that these bulbs are produced with a rare – which means expensive – material that one can find in China. On the one hand, China refuses to sell this material to European bulb producers, and on the other hand, it does not incorporate the real price of this material into the bulbs it exports to Europe.

But you are right, it would be better to have a free trade of environmentally friendly products.

DW: As a former French minister for the environment, you were instrumental in designing and implementing French laws on water and waste. What suggestions can you give China in dealing with its worsening water scarcity and pollution?

BL: I think China should create river basins authorities, which bring all water users of a river around the same table to ensure that the water is properly used, equitably shared and cleaned up before discharge.

When water is scarce, it is important to increase water efficiency (“more crop per drop”), and to clean and recycle the waste water.

DW: President Sarkozy recently reiterated France’s commitment to nuclear power, saying: “The idea that we can meet the climate challenge in France without nuclear energy is an illusion. Today we have no choice, unless we give up growth.” Using this same logic, shouldn’t China continue to rely on fossil fuels for its growth? Should China perhaps prioritise clean coal technology, rather than developing renewable energy?

BL: Clean coal technology is crucial for countries like China or the United States, who rely heavily on coal. The trouble is that clean coal technologies are still fairly expensive and in the pilot phase. I believe China is bound to use them, though they need quite a lot of extra energy to be implemented.

DW: As France’s ambassador for climate change negotiations, how would you comment on China’s climate-change efforts, with its expected overall energy efficiency likely to increase by 20% by 2010 from the 2005 level?

BL: I appreciate China’s policies and measures to combat climate change. The main points of our climate talks would be to assess the outcome of these policies and to include them in an international regime. Everybody knows we have to reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere. So what are we all aiming at? We need to fix a common goal.

DW: China is now the world’s leading provider of carbon credits through Clean Development Mechanism projects under the Kyoto Protocol, but the up-to-date technology China has received only accounts for a very small proportion of expertise given by developed countries. How could this issue be fixed to ensure a really successful arrangement under Kyoto?

BL: I think CDM projects in China are successful because they really reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. China would probably benefit from greater technology if it allowed foreign-owned companies to use CDM. For the time being, only Chinese companies are eligible.

Dongying Wang is managing editor of chinadialogue

Brice Lalonde is France’s ambassador for climate change. He chairs the Sustainable Development Roundtable for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and was the French minister for the environment from 1988 to 1992.

 All photos above © Rob Welham