By Nelly Moussu
(EurActiv) — France, set to take over the rotating EU Council presidency for the first half of 2022, will have a strategic role to play in advancing the bloc’s climate ambitions in 2022. But with the presidential elections coming up in April, the cards could be reshuffled along the way.
President Emmanuel Macron wants to use the French presidency to promote three concrete environmental actions, he said in his speech on 9 December.
These include introducing so-called “mirror clauses” to trade deals, speeding the EU border carbon adjustment mechanism, and setting an EU instrument to combat imported deforestation.
France also intends to drive forward the EU’s flagship Fit for 55 package of climate legislation, the battery regulation and the carbon market’s extension to the transport and building sectors.
Influence at a ‘pivotal’ moment
France’s Ecological Transition Minister Barbara Pompili told EU environment ministers on 20 December that she would be “very attentive” to the views of her colleagues when dealing with climate files.
“Over the next six months, we will have a lot of very important issues to deal with at a pivotal moment in the construction of Europe,” she explained.
The year 2022 will be marked by several important negotiations to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 – a goal the EU set itself in July 2021 through its climate law.
EU countries have agreed to a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as a key step towards this goal. The Fit for 55 legislative package will define the steps to be taken for the industry, the agriculture sector and even households.
Frans Timmermans, the Commission vice-president in charge of the Green Deal, told EU environment ministers on 20 December that “all discussions and proposals must keep the Climate Act as their objective.”
On extending the carbon market to transport and the energy performance of buildings – a sticking point among EU members – Timmermans said it is “one of the best instruments at our disposal to initiate a change in behaviour”.
A social issue
At the meeting of EU environment ministers, some EU countries expressed concerns about carbon pricing policies in the building and transport sector fuelling energy poverty.
Timmermans was quick to reassure them, saying “the Commission is proposing a method that will enable us to compensate for the risk of fuel precariousness for certain citizens”.
The EU’s climate chief did, however, say the executive was open to “other alternatives that would lead us to the same objective.” This would open the door to difficult negotiations since it is up to reluctant member states to make proposals.
“The faster we go through the transition, the less we depend on fossil fuels and their suppliers,” Timmermans said, referring to the decarbonisation targets for 2030 and 2050 that are now enshrined in the EU climate law.
In the long term, these objectives should make it possible to limit the rise in energy prices and thus reduce the social risk of an ecological transition that would prove costly for citizens. “We will have to prove that this is a fair transition that leaves no one behind”, said the Commission’s vice-president.
Pompili, for her part, said “we will only be able to succeed in decarbonising the economy if our fellow citizens, our territories and our companies perceive its benefits and do not experience it as an existential threat.”
Keeping it consistent
Discussions on the ‘Fit for 55’ package will once again highlight the differences between EU countries, particularly with regard to their industrial and economic circumstances.
A fine balance will have to be found to satisfy all parties while keeping the 2030 target of a 55% reduction in emissions on track.
“Any reduction in the target for a given sector or in one of the texts of the package will have to be compensated for elsewhere,” warned Pompili, who wants to “maintain overall coherence”.
“It is clear from the discussions that some people would like to move elements of the package. We can’t do it any old way, we have to keep a coherent ambition for Europe”, she added.
None of these dossiers should be concluded under the French EU presidency in the first half of the year, except for the batteries regulation tabled by the Commission a year ago and which has a good chance of being concluded in the coming months.
“The work has progressed a lot and I am quite optimistic that we will get there,” the minister said, adding that France would be “fully mobilised to create the conditions for a rapid agreement.”
This is “a truly fundamental text for materialising our ambition of a European economy that is circular, innovative, sovereign and protective of the climate,” she added.
Others in charge
Progress in the Fit for 55 negotiations is not guaranteed, particularly as the French presidential elections could radically reshuffle the deck in case leadership changes. And with Macron running for re-election, the government’s stance could change to appeal to the electorate.
The French EU presidency will end on 30 June and pass the baton to the Czechs in the second half of the year. Some continuity will be ensured as the French-Czech-Swedish trio opted for a joint programme that will apply also when Sweden takes over on 1 January 2023.
Differences in the approach on some issues are also to be expected, however.
Czech Environment Minister Anna Hubáčková, for example, insisted at the EU Council of Ministers that the overall Fit for 55 approach seems “the most sensible way to keep the targets on track”, but that “if we see that some proposals are moving forward with less difficulty than others, we could consider working by grouping together what is moving forward the fastest.”
She also insisted on the social aspects of the energy transition and the extension of the carbon market to transport and buildings, which could be problematic, “insofar as there is a negative social impact which could increase the risk of fuel poverty in our country”.
The European Commission may have presented a European social fund to protect the most precarious households, but its acceptance is currently far from unanimous.
“The social climate fund could be an answer (…), but we are not convinced that this fund will mitigate the risk,” said the Czech minister, echoing France’s reservations on the topic.
COP27 and circular economy
The Commission should present several legislative texts as part of the new Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the main building blocks of the Green Deal. This includes the EU Sustainable Textiles Strategy, a revision of the Ecodesign Directive, and a revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive.
Before the end of 2022, in November, world leaders will meet at the COP27 climate summit which will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
Holding the summit in Egypt is important for the African continent, which, while emitting just a fraction of tons of CO2 per year compared to Asia and Europe, remains very vulnerable to climate change, according to a 2019 report coordinated by the World Meteorological organisation.
“By 2030, it is estimated that up to 118 million extremely poor people will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa if adequate response measures are not put in place,” Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, the commissioner for rural economy and agriculture at the African Union Commission, wrote in the report’s preamble.
Africa thus has a major stake in being able to exert more influence on the climate negotiations, in order to encourage the most emitting countries to act quickly and strongly.
The COP27 talks will not, however, be devoid of European, and even French, influence.
Macron is indeed preparing to hold a EU-African Union summit for next February. This will be a high point of the French presidency that could allow France to retain some influence during the climate negotiations throughout the year.