What’s the price tag for the ambitious plan announced at the Grenelle to improve energy efficiency and insulation in all of the existing homes and office buildings in France? Three thousand euros per household per year, according to Remy Prud’homme, professor at the University of Paris Xll. “The building lobby and construction industries…the media, the Greens and the bobos are all applauding,” he wrote in an opinion piece in Marianne magazine this week. But he warns that the cost might be too heavy to bear for a country where consumption is drying up and economic growth has slowed to a crawl. According to his calculations, French consumers will get a return on their investment of 130 to 140 euros of energy savings per year (a bit more if the price of oil breaks through $200/barrel) plus a reduction of carbon emissions by 37 million tons a year. Certainly worthwhile for the well-heeled, but, he asks, is the investment defensible for the working classes and those living close to the poverty line?
This strikes at the heart of a big contradiction that Sarkozy is going to have to arbitrate soon: how to reconcile the central plank of his campaign platform – a pledge to raise purchasing power and deliver more economic growth – with the commitments undertaken at the Grenelle. In December, the Attali Commission to promote growth in France (its ultimate aim is to deliver 5 percent growth) will deliver its final conclusions. Among the proposals aired in the media in recent weeks are some which are at loggerheads with the Grenelle, such as the suggestion to abolish the precautionary principle, which Attali considers an obstacle to innovation. The precautionary principle means that when (on the basis of available evidence) an activity may harm human health or the environment, a cautious approach should be taken in advance – even if the full extent of harm has not yet been fully established scientifically. It is the guiding principle (so far) of the French government’s policy line on GM crops.
The working groups at the Grenelle framed the terms of reference for economic growth as follows: “The economic challenge of environmental policy is not to promote a de-industrialized economy, but an economy which is more sober in carbon, in energy and non-renewable natural resources.” Attali, however, maintains that it is not economic growth that engenders pollution, but rather production. Last month, he told France Inter radio: “The best way to not pollute is to go back to the stone age.” As always, Sarkozy will have the last word.