Since the election of President Donald Trump in September and French President Emmanuel Macron in May, the United States and France have seemingly taken completely opposite directions on climate policy, with Macron going so far as to offer grants to U.S. climate scientists discouraged by Trump’s anti-climate agenda.
But perhaps never has the new rift between the two countries been more stark than on Tuesday, when, as the United States Congress voted to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling as part of the Republican party’s massive tax overhaul, the French government officially passed a law that prohibits any new licenses for oil and gas exploration and orders an end to all oil extraction by 2040. The law also makes permanent France’s ban on fracking.
Nicolas Hulot, France’s Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition, said that the law would “ensure consistency between our laws and our climate commitments under the Paris agreement,” and acknowledged that “to remain below the 2 degrees Celsius limit, we must leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground.” Numerous scientific studies support the idea that to remain below 2 degrees Celsius — the warming limit codified in the Paris climate agreement — the vast majority of the world’s coal, oil, and natural gas reserves would need to remain untapped. By passing the law, France becomes the second country — after Costa Rica — to officially call for an end to new licenses for oil exploration.
The law is largely symbolic, as France is primarily dependent on imported fossil fuels for its energy, and generates most of its electricity from nuclear and hydropower. The country produces just under 815,000 tonnes of oil per year — an amount, according to the Guardian, which is produced in Saudi Arabia in a couple of hours. Still, the law will limit future oil production in both mainland France and its overseas territories, including French Guiana, which had sparked the interest of some fossil fuel companies in the early 2010s when oil prospects were discovered offshore.
Despite the limited reach of the law to actually prevent oil extraction around the world, Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, applauded the move as sending an important signal to other countries that consider themselves to be leaders on the issue of climate change.
“The managed decline of fossil fuels has begun,” Kretzmann said in a statement. “Leaders around the world have a choice: Will they join France in moving forward in ending fossil fuel extraction and managing the decline of the fossil fuel industry? Or will they continue to deny full steam ahead off the cliff to climate disaster and economic disarray?”
The announcement came the same day that the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, unveiled its plans to launch a carbon market in an effort to force down its emissions. But the announcement also comes as self-proclaimed climate leaders like Canada and Germany continue to turn to fossil fuel extraction to power their economies. In Germany, coal mines have been expanding as the country has struggled to simultaneously phase out its nuclear plants and ramp up its renewable energy production. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who ran on a platform of climate action — has faced criticism for his approval of two major pipeline projects that, if constructed, would bring an additional one million barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta to overseas markets.
“This is true climate leadership,” Kretzmann said of France’s new law. “If you are expanding the fossil fuel industry, you cannot be a climate leader.”
France’s law also stands in stark contrast to the efforts of both the Trump administration, which has signaled its intent to open up more areas of federal land to fossil fuel extraction, and the Republican-controlled Congress, which recently voted to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
On a call with reporters on Wednesday, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who fought efforts to open up the refuge as the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the move “an agenda item…as opposed to a real energy security message for America,” arguing that low oil prices make drilling in the Arctic less attractive to energy companies than it once was.
“They’re not going to see this revenue,” Cantwell said of Republican lawmakers who wanted the provision included to help offset the deficit created by the bill’s tax cuts. “You can’t mandate that a oil company drills somewhere.”