Can France get past its GHG-rich love of dairy and diesel to be a climate leader?

Earth Index report finds France may be cleaning up its power sector, but it will have to put its dairy farmers and transport sector on a carbon diet

France dairy greenhouse gas emissions
Photo by Herry Lawford via Creative Commons

Since its introduction from Vienna in the mid-18th century, the croissant has become one of the most emblematic foods of French life. Being almost half flour and half milk and butter, the humble pastry is also at the heart of the challenge France faces in meeting its 2030 climate targets, let alone getting to net-zero emissions by 2050. So far the annual rate of progress is just half (51%) of what is needed to meet those targets, according to analysis released by Corporate Knights Earth Index, which tracks G20 progress on climate.

The French consume more dairy products per capita than anyone else on Earth, and their dairy sector represented 7% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Decarbonizing agriculture means overhauling a massive industry. Six different “low-carbon” food labels have been launched to certify projects that sequester or avoid agricultural emissions, including “ferme laitière bas carbone” (low-carbon dairy farm).

Fortunately, other sectors are less challenging. France’s nuclear-heavy power sector is ahead of schedule in decarbonization (though it controversially kept two remaining coal plants open through the winter), and in February, President Emmanuel Macron announced a 10-fold increase in renewable energy to 2050, as well as plans for a “nuclear renaissance.”

France’s aging buildings, most of them erected before the Second World War, have an enormous potential to slash emissions by switching from gas to electric heat pumps and district heating, particularly with a decarbonized power sector. The country has good plans for this, including large renovation subsidies and one-stop retrofit shops, says Adeline Rochet of climate-change think tank E3G. “But it will take a few years to see results.” Reticent homeowners should be spurred to renovate by recent energy price hikes. Those higher energy costs should also accelerate industrial-sector efforts to decarbonize.

France climate action

In 2019, France was just below the EU average for recycling municipal waste. But in early 2020, three ambitious new 2025 targets were announced that should speed up the sector’s emission reductions: 20% reduction in single-use plastics, 100% recycling of plastic packaging and 100% removal of “useless” plastic packaging such as blister packs around batteries. Longer-term, all single-use plastics should be phased out by 2040.

Despite its world-famous electric high-speed trains, France’s transport emissions are proving more difficult to move. Electric cars have boomed in the last couple of years, which will help, but it will not be enough to overcome decades of building car-dependent sprawl. More promisingly, a green wave of municipal leaders was elected in 2020, pushing a pro-cycling agenda inspired by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Freight emissions remain difficult to move, as almost everything travels on diesel trucks.

“There are some powerful lobbies, deeply rooted in national identity in some cases, that make it difficult to achieve targets in transport and agriculture,” says Rochet. She adds that decreasing single-passenger cars and meat-based diets can go a long way, but public resistance to change is likely. “France has clearly engaged in the transition over the past few years, but it is still not up to the challenge, especially with higher EU emissions reductions targets.”


France climate emissions gap Earth Index

Adrian Hiel is a Canadian writer who has spent the last 18 years in Brussels.


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