France’s Environmental Conference: what future for the ecological economy?


France’s new government will hold its first Environmental Conference in Paris this week. Although some controversial issues are already getting all the media attention, what really is at stake is the future of a green economy which is seeking political support.


The new government, appointed in France last June following the victory of the Socialist Party’s François Hollande at the presidential elections, counts several ecologist party members among its ministers. This may explain why environmental and ecological issues are now being pushed to the top of the agenda, even though French governments, whether on the right or the left, have a tradition of supporting such matters. In fact, the Environmental Conference, set to take place in Paris at the end of the week at the initiative of Ecology minister Delphine Batho, follows in the footsteps of the Grenelle Environment Forum which was planned and held shortly after Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007. But the Environmental Conference has set itself specific ambitions, and intends to define a new way of handling the long-term issue of environmental protection politically.


A full plate

On Friday and Saturday 14th and 15th September, in Paris, the new government’s first Environmental Conference will tackle five main themes: energy, biodiversity, environmental and sanitation risks, ecological tax-system and environmental governance. Five roundtables, over two days, will gather ministers, members of the European and French parliaments, companies, unions, local authorities and NGOs together to set the main lines of the government’s action in these fields. A rather full plate awaits them! The roundtables on environmental health and biodiversity will share the topic of pesticides and their impact both on health and the environment; the creation of a specific contract for “green jobs” will be discussed and the pertinence of an ecological tax-system that protects the poorest households from increases in energy prices will also be on the table. Agriculture will of course hold a significant place in the discussions at almost all of the roundtables.

In spite of this rich agenda, most experts already agree that the discussions regarding energy will be the most crucial. First of all, because the roundtable will endorse the difficult task of preparing the national debate on energy transition that will take place this autumn… and result in the passing of a framework law at the start of 2013. Secondly, because the government has recently made a commitment that might seem contradictory to the hopes of a range of NGOs to be represented in the Conference. In July, the Social Conference (that actually works as a pattern for the Environmental Conference) stated that

a moderate energy price is a competitive advantage for France’s industrial base, and this advantage must be preserved,

as Arnaud Gossement, a lawyer in environmental law, reminds us. This explains why the government has already adopted a position on nuclear energy which is controversial among the ecologists. An extra difficulty lies in the fact that the Conference is expected to agree on a range of concrete orientations, while most of France’s energy policies are decided at European level.


The future of the green economy

But if we try to look at the bigger picture, it appears that, really, the main question at stake during this Conference is “simply” the future of the relationship between the economy and the protection of our ecosystems. Rather than setting economic growth and sustainability against each other (and energy is the field where this contradiction is most often used), many conference participants want to believe that a new model can be found. Serge Orru, from WWF, states that

the environmental conference must provoke ecological reflation. The industry of the future is our collective intelligence. What matters is negotiation, and convincing results to build a France that will be green, and thus prosperous.

On the matter of green jobs, he also declared: « It is an offensive response to redundancy plans, we must declare war on unemployment » thanks to the green economy. In the field of health, François Viellerette from Écologie sans frontières (Ecology Without Borders) and the Rassemblement pour la planète (Gathering for the Planet) believes that

treating the question of health as linked to the environment will allow for economies in the public health system. The ecological transition must be a driver for the economy and for employment; but also for a reduction in public expenses.

In other words, ecology is an opportunity for our economic system to reinvent itself based on new aims, principles and processes, although some decisions will be hard to float, and then hard to make.

It has been announced that the Environmental Conference will be repeated every year during François Hollande’s presidency; all participants share a hope that this regularity will make it possible to find and implement long-term solutions to these long-term issues. Co-building might just be on the horizon. Let’s see what the first edition has in store for the future of ecology in France.