June 8. 2023. 10:19

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Industry will be driver of European decarbonisation, French minister says

In an interview with EURACTIV, French Industry Minister Roland Lescure underlined the role of big industries in reaching the bloc’s climate targets, through the key pieces of legislation moving currently being negotiated at the EU level.

Industry is an important lever for decarbonising the European economy, to tackle climate change while reindustrialising the country and the continent, the minister told EURACTIV. Thanks to public aid, industry will, according to Lescure, be a key driver in the decarbonisation of the continent.

In mid-March, the European Commission presented its Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which aims to make the EU less dependent on external countriesfor supplies of resources critical to the energy transition.

Discussions on the CRMA have made “good progress”, and a “broad consensus” between member states should enable an agreement to be reached under the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the EU, i.e. before 1 July 2023, according to Lescure.

However, a number of points remain to be clarified: France, Germany and Slovenia, among others, are defending sectoral targets for each raw material covered by the regulation.

“It would be absurd to set the same targets for cobalt, 80% of whose reserves are located in a single African country, as for lithium, for example, which can be mined in Europe,” explained the industry minister.

He added that France – along with other member states – is also looking to “extend the list of materials considered critical by including aluminium, for example”.

Lescure praised steps forward in joint funding, citing the confirmation by European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager of plans to establish a European sovereignty fund.

However, he cautioned that other questions remain unanswered, as a number of member states have expressed reservations about the social acceptability of re-opening mines in Europe.

France presents ‘first step’ €2bn fund for critical metals

France presented a plan to launch a €2 billion investment fund for critical metals on Wednesday (10 May), which according to former industry boss Philippe Varin is just a starting point, with more to come.

Challenges ahead in the Net-Zero Industry Act

The Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA) was also presented in March by the European Commission and should allow the facilitation of the financing and deployment of technologies and energies considered essential to the decarbonisation of the EU economy.

“There are still a few challenges,” the industry minister said about the NZIA.

First of all, France is defending the full inclusion of nuclear power in the text. Currently, only innovative nuclear power is taken into account, but it benefits from fewer regulatory and financial development facilities than the other technologies identified as useful for decarbonisation, such as wind and solar.

Lescure, therefore, defended “the establishment of a single category for the technologies covered by the NZIA”. However, opposition remains “quite firm, particularly from Germany, Austria and Luxembourg”, he noted.

France is also defending the idea of joint funding, as they do not want “a debate on financing to pollute the debate on accelerating industrial decarbonisation”, he said.

This is “always a difficult debate”, even though “funds already exist” through REPowerEU, InvestEU, Horizon Europe, he pointed out. First and foremost, existing financial resources should be tapped into before looking into the possibility of new joint debt, he said.

The NZIA was announced on the heels of the US Inflation Reduction Act, which incentivises domestic production for clean industry through heavy subsidies, therefore raising debates about European protectionism.

To this, Lescure criticised the foregrounding of such protectionism, preferring instead for the carbon footprint of a product to be the main criterion for the allocation of public aid – seeing NZIA as more of a “Buy Environmental Act” than a “Buy European Act”.

As the Minister explains, this will, in turn, favour European production, “because it has a better environmental impact than production outside Europe”.

This is in line with the philosophy put forward in the “green industry” bill presented by the French government in mid-May. With this text, “the big industrialists are going to be the pilots of European decarbonisation”, the minister said.

Local resistance, a major stumbling block for EU’s critical raw materials plan

The European Union eyes a revival of its mining industry to support the green and digital transition but local resistance and lengthy permitting procedures could prove one of the main stumbling blocks to achieving this goal.

Ecodesign regulation

On Monday (22 May), member states reached a compromise on the ban on the destruction of unsold textile products, which comes within the framework of the ecodesign regulation.

According to the Minister, this is a “victory, including for France”, since several states – Italy, Greece, Malta and Poland – feared the ban would have a negative impact on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

On the contrary, Lescure considered that this legislation offers a “comparative advantage” to SMEs over fast fashion. The text will now be discussed in trilogue between the European Parliament, the Commission and the member states.

Asked by EURACTIV about the scope for improvement in the text, the minister hailed it as “an excellent start”, although France would like to “extend the ban to electrical and electrical products”.

The future of France and Europe’s industry

Looking ahead, human resources are one of the major challenges facing industry across France and the rest of the bloc, Lescure said, emphasising the need to increase the number of women in the sector.

Asked whether immigration could also be an answer, the minister responded that “with 7% unemployment in France, there are still too many people who are far from employment to be able to conduct a proactive economic immigration policy”.

Nevertheless, the question “will undoubtedly arise”. For this reason, the Minister believes that “the reindustrialisation of France and Europe also requires a relationship with immigration that is calmed and rationalised in relation to the emotional debates we are currently seeing”.

As for the “regulatory pause” called for by President Emmanuel Macron, which has been criticised by the left-wing opposition and some European countries, Lescure explained that France does not wish to “go back on Europe’s environmental commitments” but rather “implement the regulations already adopted and in the process of being adopted”, he said.

He was therefore keen to reassure people that the French government did not want to halt any debate on current legislation (such as Euro7, that limits pollutant emissions from new vehicles to reduce the environmental impact of road transport, and REACH).

According to EURACTIV’s information, however, France, along with the Czech Republic and six other member states, has sent a letter to the European Commission to stop the Euro7 regulation on the grounds that it is anachronistic, given that the EU has adopted the end of new combustion vehicles in 2035.

Approval of EU renewables law delayed as France ‘plays hardball’ on nuclear

Formal approval of the EU’s renewable energy directive has been postponed following a last-minute objection by Paris, which wants further “guarantees” on low-carbon hydrogen derived from nuclear power.

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