New Energy Law Announced in France

Segolene-Royal-invente-la-consultation-participative-pour-nommer-son-projet-de-loi-sur-la-transition-energetiqueLast week French environment and energy minister, Ségolène Royal, presented her energy law proposal to  put France on the sustainable low-carbon energy path ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks and fulfill one of the key commitments of Francois Hollande for his presidency. The main targets of the package are to:

– reduce fossil fuel consumption by 30% by 2030 (versus 2012)

– increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix to 32% (versus 13.7% in 2012)

– reduce the share of nuclear for electricity from 75% to 50% by 2025

– reduce waste to landfills by 50% by 2025.

475px-DPE.svg80 measures are proposed to put France on the green path with energy efficiency set to  play a major role. So far, so good. Energy efficiency is the best way to reduce emissions, lower costs and eliminate waste in general. Improving energy efficiency will be mandatory during building retrofits and supported by a 30% tax credit and interest free loans for up to €100,000. Buildings are responsible for 43% of the total energy used in France, about a quarter of CO2 emissions and 30% of household budgets.

015200BE04272336-c1-photo-peugeot-ion-une-electrique-au-quotidien-solution-d-avenir-ou-solution-galereThe electrification of automobiles will receive a major boost with investments to install 7 million charging stations across the country by 2030 and subsidies of up to €10,000 for the purchase of an electric car when exchanging an old diesel one. Half the vehicles purchased by the State and State-owned enterprises will have to be electric. With 19 million diesel vehicles (61% of the 38 million vehicles in France in 2013) air pollution is a major problem in cities. During the pollution peaks in March, authorities made public transport free of charge in some 30 French cities including Paris, Lyon, Grenoble and even smaller and remote locations like Boulogne-sur-Mer. The electrification of vehicles in cities, especially taxis and postal vehicles will be most welcome.

Reducing waste to landfills by 50% by 2025 through resource recovery (recycling, circular economy, etc.) to reduce energy needs and costs while reducing environmental consequences of waste. Commendable objective but are the French ready for this? In recent years we have seen a surprising level of resistance by households to measures that would help reduce household waste. There seems to be a determination for many to oppose any form of recycling. Perhaps education efforts would be worthwhile. The need for collectivities to compost their organic waste is proposed. Organic waste typically represents one-third of the waste going to landfills and their incineration is energy intensive (expensive) given that they are mostly water (80%).


Nicolas Hulot, Ambassadeur du Président pour la Planète (Photo Farouk Batiche. AFP)

Reactions to the proposal have generally been positive with the expectation that 500,000 households will be retrofitted by 2017 with significant savings on energy costs and the creation of some 100,000 jobs. The electrification of transport is expected to position  France for the future and reduce pollution from diesel vehicles. Questions have been raised however on the technicalities of financing the deployment of renewable energy and why other measures to mobility have not been proposed. Improving public transport, car sharing, biking and measures to improve fuel efficiency are  lacking.

Of course more could be done. There are many low-hanging fruits that could further help France reduce energy waste and costs and thereby improve competitiveness (and this is urgently needed). The priority remains energy efficiency and conservation. One suggestion to Ségolène Royal would be to make sure that energy efficiency measures implemented accomplish their stated objectives before paying out any tax credits. One example is the window retrofit scheme where the credit is provided as soon as windows have been replaced by ones that fulfill the new energy efficiency requirements but without making sure that they have been properly installed. As a result of poor craftsmanship many retrofits perform below expectation and the expected energy savings never materialize. Such measures are as good as throwing money out the window… but are unfortunately commonplace. More on this soon.

Celebrating The World Day to Combat Desertification


UN picture

In 1995, June 17 has been proclaimed the “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought”. The problem of land degradation is not new. In the 1970s and 80s, African drylands suffered from severe droughts that caused repeated crop failures. This situation  led to a Global Action Plan to Combat Desertification and for a Desertification Convention that would come out of the Rio 1992 process. Of the three Rio Conventions (Climate Change, Biodiversity and Desertification), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the one that receives the least attention and support. This is surprising because land degradation and desertification is one of the biggest challenges of our time. 1.5 billion people depend on degraded lands for their livelihoods and three-quarter of world’s poor are affected by land degradation which leads to tension and political instability. Soil also plays a key role in mitigating climate change while land degradation threatens biodiversity. And yet, few are aware of this.

June17To raise awareness about this problem and prepare the grounds for the “2014 Caux Dialogue on Land Security” that will take place in Caux from June 30 to July 4, a conference was organized at the Graduate Institute in Geneva on June 17 that brought together various experts for a solutions-oriented discussion around ways to combat desertification.

One key message came out: land degradation is not a fatality. It is mainly a result of human activity including overgrazing, poor farming techniques, deforestation and it is certainly exacerbated by climate change. The erosion of top soil is already having severe impacts around the word and is accelerating. It is estimated that arable land degradation is taking place at 30 to 35 times the historical rate while 13 million hectares of forests disappear annually.

But solutions exist. Reforestation and tree-regeneration can play a key role. Not only to reduce soil erosion but to help regulate the water cycle. Over 2 billion hectares can be reforested worldwide. Better water management is critical – rainwater harvesting, water conservation and drip irrigation can play an important role.


Overgrazing is a serious problem

Overgrazing must be addressed and sustainable farming practices must be implemented – one-third of the world’s farmland has been abandoned since 1960 because it has been degraded beyond use.

More on this in July! I will be one of the speakers in Caux. Full program, details and registration: click here.

For more on solutions to land degradation: click here.

Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever – Book Review

BlueFuturePublished in late 2013, Blue Future is the latest in a series that includes Blue Gold (2002) and Blue Covenant (2007) by Canadian water-activist and former UN General Assembly President advisor (2008/09) Maude Barlow. For over two decades, Maude has been working to raise awareness about the global water crisis and was a  prominent leader in the campaign to recognize access to water and sanitation as a human right that led to its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly on July 28, 2010, with the acknowledgement that access to water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.

Deepening Crisis

Despite this victory for the water justice movement, the crisis is worsening. According to UN figures some 800 million people lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to a toilet. By 2025, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will be living under water stressed conditions, a situation that is exacerbated by climate change, disruptions in the water cycle and increasingly devastating extreme weather events.

In “Blue Future” Maude Barlow provides a comprehensive account of the global water situation and the way forward if we are to avert a global water catastrophe with mass starvation, large scale migration and escalating tensions and conflicts over access to water resources. Her proposed solution path is based on four pillars:

1) The implementation and fulfillment of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation represents a fundamental obligation for governments across the world to fulfill. This is not a question of charity or CSR.

2) Water resources must be protect, conserved and managed as a “common” that belongs to everyone and for the benefit of all – including future generations.

3) Water is an essential element to allow life on earth and biodiversity to flourish and is essential to ensure the health and resilience of the ecosystems. Our failure to properly manage watersheds and water resources undermines the prospects for human development and progress. Economic development policies must recognize these fundamental laws of nature.

4) Increased water stress can increase tensions, disputes and conflicts over access to scarce water resources. But they can also become a source of cooperation as communities search for solutions for sustainable ways of producing energy and food.

A Crisis of Poor Water Management

Blue Future provides an urgent call for action to address the crisis of poor water management around the world. Modern agriculture is a case in point: it is responsible for  70% to 90% of global water withdrawals for mass-irrigation that are siphoning aquifers, rivers and lakes. Water “mining” is lowering water tables and drying up rivers around the world. The drying up of the American Ogallala  aquifer would destroy $20 billion worth of annual agricultural revenue and turn the region into a giant desert. Withdrawals from rivers by large-scale farming operations reduce water flows to the point that some of the world’s largest watercourses like the Yellow River (China), the Colorado and Rio Grande (USA), or the Murray and Darling Rivers (Australia) no longer reach the sea.

Water Energy-Nexus

The book also provides an fascinating account of the water-energy nexus and the growing impact of our energy policies on water resources, including the consequences of dams for electricity production, the pollution of water from coal powered electricity production, the impact of biofuels, tar sands, fracking, nuclear energy but also from renewable energy – namely large scale solar thermal plants that use water for cooling. By far the largest impacts are caused by coal power plants and biofuels. Ironically, some of the largest coal plants are located in regions that are on the frontline of the water crisis with China accounting for 50% of world production. Biofuels not only represent a threat to food security, they also carry an unfavorable carbon footprint versus fossil fuels and a massive water footprint. Instead of being a response to climate change, corn ethanol represents a threat multiplier that contributes to soil pollution and causes greater water scarcity.

Hope for the Future

Blue Future is ultimately a book of hope. The development of large-scale drip irrigation can reduce water needs by up to 90% and requires a fraction of the energy to operate. Ancient and highly effective solutions like rainwater harvesting can be deployed on a large scale to reduce pressure on aquifers and rivers and compares favorably to the modern practice of water mining. Local, organic and sustainable farming practices can reduce water requirements, improve food security and provide livelihoods. Most importantly Maude Barlow demonstrates that solutions are available. What is missing is the public awareness and the pressure on governments and authorities that will bring about the political will to necessary for their deployment. This story is far from over!

For more about Maude Barlow and her work see the Council for Canadians website.

Economists and the Mounting Cost of Natural Decline


We have been very slow in recognizing the true relationship between nature and the economy but economist Robert Costanza figured out that the value of the services that nature provides us (for free) are far greater then what we previously thought and even exceed the value of the global economy. In 1997, Costanza conservatively estimated that “ecosystem services” (clean water, clean air, pollination…) where worth far more then the global GDP. This realization helped dispel the myth that we need a strong economy to “afford” to protect the environment. In fact, it is the other way around. We depend on nature and so does the economy. Hence we should aim to enhance and improve the state of the natural world that sustains us.

Bees for pollination

Unfortunately, we are not moving in the right direction. Costanza just updated his 1997 study (see Global Environmental Change) and it turns out the total value of global ecosystem services fell by $20 trillion (14%) between 1997 and 2011 (from $US145 trillion to US$125 trillion a year). This compares with a 2011 global GDP of just $US75 trillion. “Nature is not just a pretty place. Nature is a big and important part of the real economy which adds to human well-being,” says Costanza. The drop was partly due to the loss of tropical forests, wetlands and coral reefs. Tropical forests declined by 642 million hectares between 1997 and 2011, while deserts had grown by 234 million hectares. (more on land degradation)

In Australia, where Robert Costanza is now based, ecosystem services were estimated to be worth around US$5 trillion ($5.4 trillion) a year, compared to GDP of around US$1.5 trillion.

We urgently need better measures of human progress to overcome the limitations of GDP and of the traditional Profit and Loss statement. Flawed indicators lead to dysfunctional and shortsighted decision-making that can undermine the natural capital we depend on. Think of the newspaper commentaries by J.P. Morgan Chase that economic activity surrounding the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico outweighed its negative impacts, timber companies saying that forests have no value until they are cut down (Fletcher Challenge in British Columbia, Canada) ignoring the impacts on soil erosion, nutrient loss, fisheries, biodiversity, etc.

NY WaterEnvironmental degradation is mainly an unintended consequence of industry and commerce activities but it does not necessarily need to be so. There are compelling examples of innovative approaches where protecting natural environments and economic considerations have been reconciled. In New York, protecting the Catskills watersheds North of the City has helped avoid $6 to $8 billion in capital investment into chemical filtration and hundreds of millions in operating costs. It turns out that watershed protection was a far better investment then chemical water treatment. Similarly in Munich, it was cheaper to subsidize organic agriculture to keep the water clean then to invest in chemical filtration. The city provides 320 million liters per day thanks to natural soil filtration. Munich has the cheapest water in Europe and also one of the cleanest – it contains 10 times less nitrates then the European norms.

The Costanza study provides policy makers with powerful arguments to protect watersheds, forests by recognizing their benefits in a way that traditional economics tends to ignore. Given the large-scale environmental degradation (see Millennium Ecosystem Report), policy makers must encourage practices that help restore and enhance natural capital while condemning destructive activities. The clock is ticking.

The report was written by scientists and economists from the Australian National University, Wageningen University in The Netherlands, the University of Denver in the United States, the University of South Australia, the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, and the University of East Anglia in Britain.