How the French Fight Global Warming

COMMENTARY Environment

How the French Fight Global Warming

Oct 20th, 2014 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Katie Tubb

Policy Analyst

Katie Tubb is a policy analyst for energy and environmental issues in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

The past month has seen considerable news on the global warming front—the National Academy of Sciences found that the U.N. underestimates the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed by plants, Greenpeace’s founder described the group as an “evil organization” that has “lost concern for humanity,” and a paper in the journal Ocean Science concluded that sea-level rise has decelerated by 44 percent since 2004, for starters. The French have decided to take a stand and fight by unplugging 25 percent of their electricity supply.

Earlier this month, the lower house of the French Parliament passed a long-debated “energy transition” bill that would replace the one renewable electricity source that provides efficient, affordable energy—nuclear power—with other emissions-free power that depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing at the right times. Specifically, the bill would phase out 25 percent of the nation’s nuclear power by the year 2025 and replace some of it with wind, solar, biomass, and small hydro power. This presumably would be accomplished with a streamlined regulatory process and paid for by a new subsidy program for renewables. It also would cut energy consumption in half based on 2012 levels by the year 2050. To top it off, the bill would ban plastic bags and plastic kitchenware. This is what some in France call “ecological patriotism.” Others might call it a picnic tragedy, an energy disaster, and a bulldozing of freedom.

Last year, France’s 58 nuclear power reactors provided over 73 percent of the nation’s electricity, which is below the average cost for EU nations. A robust domestic nuclear industry has positioned France to be a significant exporter of electricity and nuclear reactor technology. But in order to meet the goal of reducing nuclear power’s contribution, some 20 of those reactors will need to close. By comparison, hydro power produced 13 percent, wind nearly 3 percent, and solar a whopping 0.8 percent of France’s electricity. These are the electricity sources the French energy transition plan looks to in replacing nuclear.

Praised by supporters as a step in the direction of becoming a “leading eco-friendly power,” such an energy transition would be the exact opposite. There is nothing eco-friendly about prematurely taking offline perfectly good infrastructure that provides low-cost, reliable electricity. Nuclear power plants have a small footprint compared to the massive amount of consistent electricity they create. Further, nuclear power is virtually emissions free, emitting almost no CO2 or real pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur dioxides or volatile organic compounds.

While the bill has yet to be passed into law and the consequences have yet to be felt, a look to France’s eastern neighbor gives a hint of what such a move could mean. Germany’s “energiewende” aims to completely take its nuclear power offline by 2022, increase renewable contributions to 35 percent of the electricity supply by 2020, cut energy consumption in half based on 2008 levels by 2050, and CO2 emissions by 80 percent based on 1990 levels by 2050. The result: No other EU nation save Denmark pays as much for household electricity as Germany does. Half of that rate doesn’t even purchase a single kilowatt; it covers taxes and fees. While Germany struggles to take down nuclear power and scale up expensive renewables, the country has increasingly filled the gap with less expensive and reliable coal-fired power.

Even America’s liberals understand how absurd this is. Carol Browner, an Obama adviser, an EPA administrator during the Clinton years, and a former nuclear opponent, has said that if you care about clean air or climate change, “you should support nuclear power.”

Aside from taxing the average Frenchman to line the pockets of politically favored energy companies, it is hard to see what else France’s energy transition would accomplish.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal