A zero carbon France in 2050: Why the debate on sobriety is essential

To face the consequences of global warming, France has set itself the objective of achieving "carbon neutrality" by 2050: that is to say, achieving a balance between the annual flows of gas emissions. greenhouse effect and the annual absorption flows of these gases to limit climate imbalance.

But how do we actually go about achieving such a goal in just a few decades, when we are struggling to reduce our emissions by just a few percent? This necessarily involves profound transformations in society and the economy.

A new study from the Ecological Transition Agency (Ademe) - “Transition (s) 2050. Choose now. Act for the climate ” which appears this Tuesday, November 30, 2021 - attempts to provide some answers by proposing 4 “profiles” of scenarios as so many ways to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050: from the most sober (we have to change our lifestyles and reduce our consumption) to the most “technophile” (let's bet on technological advances to repair the damage caused to the environment without modifying our lifestyles).

Invite to collective debate

If Ademe has already engaged in a foresight exercise in 2012 and 2017, this is the first time that it has done so in such a global approach. This extensive work, carried out over two years, mobilized around a hundred experts within the Agency who each provided a vision of their sector to build, by successive iterations, four consistent and coherent scenarios.

The result of this initiative is presented in more than 650 pages and aims to reach far beyond specialists in energy and ecological transition. In this spirit, a synthesis and an executive summary are also proposed. Economic actors, citizens, NGOs, public decision-makers, all are invited to take it up to feed collective deliberation.

The four scenarios proposed, which are inspired by those of IPCC report on 1,5 ° C, are deliberately contrasted: each mobilizes different technical, economic and social levers, and the document details as honestly as possible their respective implications.

The challenges of a projection in 2050

The complexity of such a study was to integrate all the dimensions of the ecological transition, some of which are still poorly documented.

Unlike the issues affecting energy, which are already well modeled, those concerning resources (soil, materials, metals, water, etc.) are indeed complicated to grasp quantitatively in their diversity. Same difficulty for biodiversity: the issues are territorialized and therefore difficult to extrapolate into a national model. These new fields have therefore been integrated as much as possible, but they will have to be refined in future exercises.

Another challenge: the effects of climate change. When we look to 2050, we risk forgetting that the world of tomorrow will be very different, as climate change is already a reality. If the flow of the Rhône drops by 30%, it is all agriculture in south-eastern France that will have to change, while the energy production of the Rhône nuclear power plants will be called into question.

It is therefore necessary to integrate adaptation to climate change into carbon neutrality strategies, which Ademe has tried to do with the available knowledge.

Finally, if the ecological stakes are global, the study was carried out at the scale of metropolitan France: thinking about the future without knowing precisely the evolution of the rest of the world necessarily implies simplifications.

What are the main findings of the study?

Several strong results emerge: first of all, there is no quick fix. None of the scenarios is easy, due to the challenges to be taken up in implementing the new solutions - rather technological for scenarios 3 “green technologies” and 4 “remedial bets”, rather societal organization for scenarios 1 “generation” frugale ”and 2“ territorial cooperation ”.

Synthetic presentation of the four scenarios.
ADEME, CC BY-NC-ND

The study also highlights the importance of placing interactions with the living world at the heart of the debates, just like the question of technologies. Beyond its own value that we must preserve, living things nourish us, provide us with materials and energy, and also store carbon ... We must imagine our development in interdependence with it, which we have somewhat forgotten in our world where urbanization continues to gain ground.

Finally, sobriety appears as a structuring element in the choice of development. We have three main levers for reducing our impact on the climate: sobriety (questioning our needs), energy efficiency (producing while consuming less energy), and recourse to clean energies. However, these last two levers are limited by their physical potential and remain conditioned by technological progress.

Sobriety, a poorly understood notion

Central in the ecological transition, this notion remains poorly understood, sometimes caricatured. And raises concerns.

Let us first recall what it is: far from being reduced to a slogan for a “regressive” way of life, it consists in the first place in questioning ourselves collectively and individually about our needs; second, to meet these needs by limiting our impact on the environment.

If this sober approach does not call for a single response, it necessarily has more radical consequences on our lifestyles and consumption than technical solutions (increasing energy efficiency, decarbonizing energy, even capturing and storing CO).2).

Graph taken from the Ademe study detailing energy consumption in the various prospective scenarios aimed at France's carbon neutrality by 2050.
ADEME, CC BY-NC-ND

However, it is not a question of opposing sobriety and technology head-on. The first questions above all the way of using the second, by mobilizing it to the extent of the reality of our needs. It can lead, for example, to favoring solutions low tech, simple and robust, which meet the needs, leaving aside secondary functions.

Common sense solutions?

Relying on sobriety should be easier than developing new technological solutions, since it is most often based on common sense ("The energy that costs the least is the energy that is not consumed", etc. ) and does not require complicated developments. However, there are still many brakes.

The first concerns the “rebound effect”: when a new, more efficient technology is put in place, it saves us money, which can lead us to change our behavior to benefit even more from it. Thus, the energy renovation of a home will push residents to turn up the thermostat, since heating costs less. In a home where it was cold because you couldn't pay the bill, that's quite understandable. But when we were already warming up well, wouldn't it be better to keep a sweater and use the savings for more relevant needs?

Second obstacle, individuals may be unable to choose sobriety. This incapacity can be financial (they do not have the means to undertake an energy renovation) or physical, because the territorial or economic organization prevents them from doing so. If you can make the effort to go and buy bread on foot or by bike, going to work several dozen kilometers from home every day when there is no public transport is complicated; difficult here to do without a car.

A final obstacle concerns the social dimension of sobriety and our collective and individual imaginaries of the “good life”. Our contemporary economic model remains based on the incentive to consume. Transforming our social representations, fueled by advertising and social networks, involves acting on systemic aspects of society.

A thousand and one ways to be sober

Let us now look at different possible variations of sobriety.

Our acts of consumption represent the largest part of our carbon footprint. The more we buy, the more we manufacture, and the more we manufacture, the more energy and raw materials we use… Take the example of textiles: today we buy twice as many clothes than 15 years ago ! Can we question the need to renew our wardrobe so frequently?

Sobriety also lies in the way of eating, which represents on average a quarter of the carbon footprint of a French person. The most effective lever is to moderate your meat consumption: it takes four times less agricultural area to feed a vegetarian than a big meat eater. Between the two, there is room to choose your level of moderation and eat quality meat. You can also question your consumption of processed foods, sugary products, etc.

Graph taken from the Ademe study showing how food is made up in the various prospective scenarios aimed at France's carbon neutrality by 2050.
ADEME, CC BY-NC-ND

Digital technology, whose use, and therefore the impact, is growing at breakneck speed, is a beautiful playground for sobriety: favor wifi over 4G, moderate the sending of videos to social networks, watch a low definition video ...

These actions are more at the individual level, but in structuring areas, sobriety is in fact a collective challenge.

Teleworking is therefore synonymous with increased comfort and, at first glance, beneficial for the environment. Here is a sobriety apparently easy to achieve! But that's without counting the apartment heated all day, or even the move to a more spacious accommodation and perhaps further from the workplace. Meanwhile, the company's offices remain largely empty, and continue to consume energy. The actual gain is in fact conditional on an overall change in the organization of businesses and land use planning; this requires coordinated adaptation between communities, companies and employees.

More generally, public policies, market logics, over which the individual has no control, will largely define where we live, where we consume, where we work, our modes of travel ...

For example, moving away from the all-suburban model, which consumes a lot of surface area and lengthens travel times, requires a coordinated effort by all political and economic actors to offer economically accessible and desirable housing in a new urban model, of new types. jobs closer to where people live, adapted training courses… Not easy!

A democratic challenge

As these examples show, it is our lifestyles, but also our social and economic model that sobriety is shaking up. This explains why we tend collectively to favor technical solutions so as not to tackle what seems too complex and not very consensual. However, the new study from Ademe shows that a good dose of sobriety will greatly secure the preservation of the planet.

Scenario 4, which does not use sobriety, obviously leads us to a dead end: like the Shadoks, we would always devote more effort to repairing the damage to the environment. Scenario 3 relies mainly on technologies, but the time to disseminate them delays the reduction of our impact on the environment.

Scenario 1 and scenario 2 make the bet to succeed in changing our lifestyles. The first by means of a rapid modification of the collective imagination and restrictive standards, which poses the risk of strong, even violent cleavages (the yellow vests crisis has shown) in society if the choices are not made. not well shared and explained. The second relies on a consensus resulting from multi-stakeholder governance; it necessarily goes a little slower.

The challenge of collective sobriety is to offer desirable options and to distribute the effort equitably between businesses and consumers, urban and rural, young and old ... This requires a calm debate, finding compromises, Above all, taking care not to place the sobriety effort on populations which already have difficulty in meeting their needs. Digital moderation cannot be a pretext, for example, not to provide very high speed digital access in rural areas! Likewise, it will be necessary to support the fractions of society affected by these transformations head-on. Those, for example, who work in a sector challenged by the collective sobriety approach.

It is for all these reasons that the implementation of sobriety requires collective deliberation. This question must be rehabilitated as an opportunity for a new social contract to be developed collectively, and not a divisive debate. The experience of the citizens' climate convention, which brought together people from all walks of life, revealed that it was possible to propose ambitious and consensual choices.

None of the scenarios presented in the study has of course any normative value; various choices are possible. The question remains to know what types of levers of sobriety we want to mobilize and to what extent.

Believing that solving the climate crisis will only come through technology is too risky a gamble to be attempted.

Fabrice Boissier, Engineer of the Corps des Mines, Deputy Managing Director, Ademe (Ecological Transition Agency)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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