How green are the French?

At a time when we are all questioning our green credentials, we take a look at some of the measures the French are taking to fight the climate crisis...

Plane trees on the Canal du Midi, France. Photo by Thomas Claveirole. Creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Plane trees on the Canal du Midi, France. Photo by Thomas Claveirole. Creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The climate crisis is certainly part of everyday conversation here in France and the French government seem to launch a new initiative to cut carbon emissions every week. With the adoption of the Energie-Climat act, France has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. For a snapshot, here's how France compares to the main anglophone countries and to neighbouring Germany, with regard to carbon dioxide emissions (figures show metric tonnes per capita):

  1. Australia - 15.63T
  2. United States - 14.61T
  3. Canada - 14.99T
  4. Germany - 8.7T
  5. New Zealand - 6.67T
  6. United Kingdom - 5.43T
  7. France - 4.56T

(2017 figures from www.statista.com)


Environmental activist Greta Thunberg attacked world leaders at the United Nations for not doing more to tackle climate change. She also made the headlines for launching legal proceedings against France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey, arguing that they did not prevent climate change despite being aware of the damage it does.

This might seem a little unfair given France's ranking in our above list, but to put it in perspective, the five were chosen for being the biggest polluters of the 46 countries that ratified the third optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This protocol allows children to submit complaints, appeals and petitions - an optional protocol that the UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and China have not signed, along with another 144 countries who have otherwise ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.


#1. Travel plans


In France, road vehicle emissions have been targeted with several initiatives. Of course the Gilets Jaunes movement was initially sparked by the government's plan for a steep hike in fuel prices, which it did partially backtrack on. The Crit'Air initiative classes vehicles by emissions and gradually cities are limiting which cars can circulate in certain zones or on certain days. The Prime à la Conversion helps all French households who have a qualifying old diesel car to potential aid of several thousand euros towards the purchase of a cleaner car.


Recently, the rules governing the use of electric scooters were integrated into the highway code. The  government’s plan vélo includes a spending budget of €350 million over seven years to develop the cycling network across the country.


From 1st January 2020, the French Government introduced an éco-contribution on air travel, expected to generate €180 million in revenues, to go entirely towards financing clean daily transport. This charge is applied to flights departing from France, with the exception of connecting flights, domestic flights to or from Corsica and overseas territories. It applies to all companies departing from France, regardless of their nationality. Given the normal composition of air traffic, 62% of this contribution is borne by foreign companies and is progressive, ranging from €1.5 per ticket on a domestic or intra-European flight in economy class, to €18 per ticket on a non-EU flight in business class.


#2. Power to the people


French energy policy objectives, reaffirmed when the Energy-Climat act was passed, aim for renewable electricity production to increase from 20% at the end of 2018 to 40% by 2030.

In October 2019 the first floating solar power plant in France was inaugurated, one of the many current photovoltaic projects intended to produce 129.4 MW. There are also current projects to develop onshore wind power totalling 576 MW. Together, these projects will represent the electricity consumption of 350,000 households and will increase the current installed wind and solar photovoltaic electricity capacity by 3%.

Heating networks play an essential role in carbon-free heating energies and are increasingly popular in France (Gourdon has a wood-fired réseau chaleur that heats the schools, hospital, swimming pool and the houses along its route). The French government is encouraging local authorities and their partners to act now to achieve national objectives by 2030, namely a five-fold increase in renewable heating and cooling compared with 2012.

Available to all French households and depending on income and the type of equipment to be replaced, the Coup de pouce Chauffage charter provides grants to help with the cost of replacement of a coal, oil or gas boiler with either an efficient biomass boiler, an air-to-water or water-to-water heat pump, a combined solar system, a hybrid heat pump, connection to an energy efficient heating network or a gas-fired boiler with very high energy efficiency.


In a similar vien, the Coup de pouce Isolation charter provides grants to help with the cost of attic and roof insulation and underfloor insulation. The crédit d'impôt transition énergétique or CITE gives a 15% tax rebate on the installation costs of double or triple glazing.

Closed fridges at the Intermarché, Gourdon.
Closed fridges at the Intermarché, Gourdon.

#3. Down to business


In France, businesses are obliged to switch off illuminated signs, advertising and window displays between 1am and 6am. Closed refrigerators are being rolled out across French supermarkets. Shops can no longer give out single-use plastic bags at the checkout and fruit and vegetable sections are now equipped with compostable single-use bags.


With the adoption of the anti-waste bill for a circular economy, several measures have been introduced, such as a ban on the disposal of unsold new products. Producers, importers and distributors, including for distance selling, will be required to reuse (including donation) or recycle their unsold goods. In addition, the Triman logo becomes mandatory and must be accompanied by clear sorting instruction on all products.

On the issue of reparation, a clear label will be printed directly on electrical and electronic products or provided in dematerialized form. It will indicate whether the product is easily repairable, difficult to repair or not repairable, along with the availability of spare parts, which should be supplied within 30 days.

The Triman logo
The Triman logo

The French senate has voted to allow consumers to use their own packaging and containers when shopping for food, or buying take-away food and drink. The aim is to reduce food waste and to encourage shops to reduce packaging and sell more in bulk. It will mean that shops and takeaway outlets may remove disposable packaging for their goods, including for fresh food such as meat or fish.

Containers used by consumers must be suitable and clean enough to safely transport the food, the rules stipulate, and the consumer themselves will remain responsible for the hygiene of the container and the food from the point of sale onwards.


France is planning to convert to 100% recycled plastic by 2025, starting with a bonus-malus system of penalties. Shoppers could find themselves paying up to 10% more for items in unrecycled packaging, while products in recycled plastic could cost them up to 10% less.


But some French consumers manage to go even further... We leave you now with a short video on how one French woman manages to only throw away 1 kilo of waste per year. If you find it a little fast, you can slow it down in the settings, found in the bottom right-hand corner of the video.