The last working group at the Grenelle took place on Friday, the day after the official closure of the summit because of time overrun. Participants tackled biofuels and the “greening of democracy”. The latter has received scant media coverage but is important as it deals with improving transparency and accountability through legal reforms which would confer institutional status on NGOs and increase the public’s ability to obtain compensation for environment-related health problems. There was apparently no deal on the proposal to allow class action suits for victims of environmental damage, but the issue of giving special protection to whistle-blowers on the environment will be hashed out in union negotiations on health and work. An independent authority will be set up to mediate conflicts linked to environmental expertise, and a parliamentary commission will be formed to define its parameters and set-up.
The roundtable also confirmed the adoption of official recognition for NGOs as actors and partners in the social dialogue between governments, employers and workers. The Conseil Économique et Social (Economic and Social Council) which is France’s third most important constitutional assembly will be reformed to include NGOs as decision-makers in the process of formulating recommendations for bills to be submitted for approval in parliament.On corporate social responsibility, the Alliance pour la planète. obtained its wish that companies who do not respect an already existing law on transparency and accountability be sanctioned.
The issue of greenwashing was discussed as well, and the Grenelle reaffirmed the need to reform the main regulatory body that governs advertising standards in France to include independent monitors. At present the body is only regulated by industry players.
On biofuels, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo announced the creation of a study group to evaluate the ecological and energy efficiency of the first generation of biofuels (those extracted from cereals which would otherwise be used as food) and pledged to step up research and development efforts on the more promising second generation biofuels.
The working group will convene for a general review before February 1, 2008.
Among the weak links identified by NGOs at the close of the Grenelle were biodiversity and environmental education. The Association for the Protection of Wildlife (ASPAS) issued a communique deploring the neglect of biodiversity in the Grenelle to the benefit of problems which require economically profitable solutions such as transport and construction. Aside from the establishment of “biological corridors” which will link isolated wildlife preserves, there was scant attention paid to the protection of oceans, tropical forests and notably the DOM-TOMs, France’s overseas territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, which are key areas in need of biodiversity protection.
On environmental education, the Alliance said that the working groups stopped short of making serious proposals. “Along with the question of waste disposal, these are the two areas where the Grenelle has not finished its work,” said Anne Bringault, director of Friends of the Earth, France. “The only thing which was adopted this morning, was that we have to integrate the environment into the public sector, but also in education, in schools, from the earliest classes. The working group has to deliver fresh conclusions before the end of the year.”Illegal logging was another issue, and here Borloo pledged that France would ban all imports of illegal wood and make the fight against deforestation a priority of international negotiations (in the context of Kyoto).
Grégoire Lejonc of Greenpeace France welcomed this statement, but added that the NGOs did not obtain satisfaction on the certification of tropical wood. Instead of restricting itself to an FSC label, the government has said it will allow imports of both FSC wood and PEFC (Program of the Endorsement of Forest Certification) wood, which is not endorsed by NGOs as they say it has weak environmental standards.”It is now up to us to make sure there is a precise follow-up on the executon of the plans and commitments taken publicly by the government and the president,” said Yannick Jadot, campaigns director for Greenpeace France and spokesman for the Alliance.
The NGOs have a big job on their hands monitoring the progress and implementation of this huge colossus of policy proposals, and making sure that Sarkozy honours his central commitment articulated at the press conference last week (thanks to Brian Fitzgerald at Greenpeace for pointing this out – I missed it in the deluge of announcements). “From now on every major public project, every public decision will be judged on its effect on climate, and on its carbon cost. Each public decision will be judged on how it affects bio-diversity. The onus won’t be on ecological decisions to prove their merit, but on non-ecological projects to prove they can’t be done any other way.” The dangers are everywhere – lack of vigilance from the public as media interest wanes, evisceration of the proposals as they grind their way through parliament, opposition from the ruling right-wing UMP party which is joined at the hip to the pesticide and automobile lobbies. But no matter what happens next, a new process has been set in motion and peoples’ expectations irrevocably modified.