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France congratulates itself for 5.8% drop in greenhouse gas emissions: What’s the full picture?

Macron stretches after an all night negotiating session at an EU summit in Brussels, December 2020, where leaders have agreed to cut the bloc's emissions by 55% by 2030.
Macron stretches after an all night negotiating session at an EU summit in Brussels, December 2020, where leaders have agreed to cut the bloc's emissions by 55% by 2030. Copyright Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP
Copyright Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP
By Euronews Green
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While welcoming the good news, climate campaigners say the government should be more modest about how it was achieved.

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Greenhouse gas emissions dropped by an “unprecedented” 5.8 per cent in France last year, President Emmanuel Macron wrote on X this week.

The official figures from CITEPA, which provides the data for the French Environment Ministry, are undoubtedly good news. If the country continues along this trajectory, it would be able to meet its national and internationally agreed decarbonisation targets.

“It’s historic,” French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Wednesday, praising “the French way” of excelling at the energy transition.

But environmental experts have been equally quick to keep the state’s self-congratulations in check.

“A little modesty would be welcome!” responded Anne Bringault, director of programmes at the Climate Action Network. “It's important to analyse the causes before congratulating yourself.”

So what’s really behind the drop in emissions between 2022 and 2023, and can France keep it up?

Why did French emissions fall so far last year?

As Bringault points out, the sector that saw the biggest drop in greenhouse gas emissions last year was electricity generation.

But, she says, that’s mostly because 2022 was a bad year for clean electricity in France, due to major outages in France’s nuclear reactors - with half of the huge fleet out of action.

This forced a 29 per cent increase in domestic gas generation in France to compensate, according to a report from clean think tank Ember.

So the recovery of these nuclear plants in 2023 makes the new figures look comparatively very good. France saw the world’s largest increase in nuclear generation last year, according to Ember’s latest report.

Nuclear made up 65 per cent of France’s power mix in 2023, while wind and solar contributed a further 14 per cent. Environmentalists are wary of nuclear, since it produces hazardous radioactive waste which has to be properly stored - at the risk of unleashing deadly pollution.

There has been genuine progress with renewables too, however.

France had the second highest increase in wind generation in the EU last year, just behind Germany. It also saw the biggest growth in wind and solar combined across the bloc, with a 14 terawatt hours (TWh) jump.

Which sectors in France saw the biggest drops in pollution last year?

Looking more closely at sectors reveals a mixed picture, in which it can be tricky to determine the exact factors.

France’s industrial emissions dropped nearly 9 per cent, for example. But commentators like Bringault attribute this primarily to a decline in economic activity last year, rather than the structural impact of decarbonisation policies.

There was a significant drop in GHG emissions from the buildings sector, which reached its lowest level since 1990. CITEPA notes several factors, including the continued influence of the government’s plea for energy sobriety, and a rise in heat pump installations. As well as - less positively - reduced energy demand due to increased energy prices and hotter temperatures.

For road transport - the leading culprit of GHG emissions in France, CITEPA only reported a 3.4 per cent drop. Electric vehicles and car pooling could be making a difference, it notes. But Bringault says there is an urgent need for more sustainable travel action.

France’s air traffic emissions also dropped by 3.4 per cent last year, after short-haul flights were banned in May 2023 where a direct rail alternative exists.

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Globally, aviation emissions rose by 16 per cent last year compared to 2022 - but are still 15 per cent lower than in 2019, pre-pandemic.

Is France on track to meet its decarbonisation targets?

In the five years from 2018 to 2023, France’s total emissions fell from around 440 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent GHGs to 370 million tonnes, a drop of around 17 per cent.

Last year’s sharp drop of 5.8 per cent is not without precedent. In 2020, due to COVID, emissions plummeted by 9 per cent; and the unusually mild winter of 2014 saw a 6.6 per cent decrease.

Since these were outliers, CITEPA says that 2023 was an “unprecedented situation” in that all major emitting sectors contributed to a reduction in emissions.

There’s one big caveat, however: carbon sinks were excluded. French forests have suffered considerably in recent years, following repeated droughts, wildfires, tree diseases and increased timber harvests. Under a net analysis over the last four years, France would have overshot its carbon budget.

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By 2030, the country is aiming to achieve a 50 per cent (55 per cent net) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels - as per the European Green Deal.

Shedding 5.8 per cent emissions a year puts it on track, but only if this rate is sustained with similar reductions each year.

In sum, this week’s good news should not be viewed out of context, or seen as an excuse for France to rest on its laurels. But they do provide some hope; as Macron concludes his post, “Let’s not give up!”

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