France's environment minister takes swipe at Sunak's pushback on net zero

Christophe Bechu says tensions over the green transition in Europe must be met with more explanations from politicians

French Environment Minister Christophe Bechu delivers a speech during the closing day of the 'Horizons' party parliamentary days and French mayors Assembly in Angers, western France. AFP
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French Environment Minister Christophe Bechu on Tuesday lashed out at UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for walking back last week on green commitments on cars and domestic heating as he called on European leaders to communicate better on the topic.

“When you see the position of Rishi Sunak which consists in explaining that you have to slow down the rhythm [of the green transition], you can appreciate that across Europe, there is a need for explanations,” said Mr Bechu during an online brief with journalists.

Mr Sunak last week announced a shift of Britain's climate goals, pushing back a ban on new petrol-only cars from 2030 to 2035 and delaying another ban on buying new boilers. “We have stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country that no one seems to be happy with,” he said.

His decision drew criticism from climate experts who warned that avoiding short-term costs was likely to lead to a greater bill for taxpayers down the road.

But it was hailed by former US president Donald Trump, who said on Sunday that he always knew that Mr Sunak was “smart, that he wasn’t going to destroy and bankrupt his nation for fake climate alarmists that don’t have a clue.”

Responding to a question from The National, Mr Bechu said that controversies such as those created by Mr Sunak's recent decision showed that “all European countries are searching for the right track.”

“There is a need for explanations everywhere because we can see that there are tensions,” he told reporters.

Mr Bechu pointed at other cases of European pushback against green policies, including deep divisions in the Netherlands over reducing nitrogen-based pollution and recent infighting within Germany's coalition government over a phase-out of fossil heaters.

Describing himself as a moderate, Mr Bechu criticised the European Parliament's centre right and far right's attempt this summer to block the adoption of a climate conservation law.

He also lambasted the far left for allegedly calling for a “hammer and sickle on green background instead of [the communist] red [symbol].”

“We need nuance,” pleaded Mr Bechu. “A [green] transition does not happen in 15 seconds with bans and taxes [ …] We need subtlety and finesse.”

Mr Bechu, a centre-right politician, will be demonstrating his ability to communicate the government's climate goals during an “environmental tour de France” that kick-starts later this week in Brittany.

“The idea is to go out and meet the French people directly for two reasons: so that environmental planning is not taken hostage by populist movements and also to bring forward explanations and find solutions,” he told reporters.

His “tour de France” comes after French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday unveiled an ambitious multiyear climate investment plan,pledging that the country's green transition would create jobs and increase France's energy independence as it reduces its emissions by 5 per cent a year over the next seven years.

He promised that low-income households would receive government subsidies to switch to green energy, including an upcoming €100 a month leasing programme for vehicles that are made in Europe.

Mr Bechu said that he aims to fight narratives propagated by climate sceptics and defeatists who say that it is too late to fight climate change, while also taking a swipe at social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, for not moderating fake news enough since it was bought by Elon Musk last year.

“Our narrative about accelerating [the green transition] collides with those who say that others must take their share of the responsibility,” said Mr Bechu.

“Except that's forgetting a bit fast that in terms of historic and cumulative emissions, Europe is far ahead. Saying that others don't go fast enough is the worst argument to justify inaction. But even that is something that must be explained” to the public, he said.

Europe has reduced its greenhouse gases emissions by more than 30 per cent since 1990. This is more than other heavily industrialised regions of the planet like the US and Japan but scientists have warned that it is not fast enough to achieve the continent's target of reducing emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

In parallel, the French Energy Ministry has launched its own communication programme centred around climate policies, with an international conference on Thursday aimed at promoting nuclear energy as a climate-friendly source of power.

A dozen ministers and climate envoys will attend, including Cop28 President designate Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the US secretary of energy Jennifer Granholm and South Korea's deputy minister for energy policy Young Ghil Cheon.

Energy minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher on Tuesday said that France had reduced its emissions by 2.7 per cent in 2022 and by 4 per cent in the first four months of 2023.

Despite criticism from right-wing MPs who described Mr Macron's climate announcements as too abstract, Ms Pannier-Runacher argued, like the president, that they represent an economic opportunity with limited impact on consumer behaviour that will revamp local industry.

Speaking to journalists during a phone brief, she said that she believed in “an ecology of progress, of science and solutions.”

Updated: September 26, 2023, 3:10 PM