France does not figure prominently in the global campaign to save the environment. Its neighbour, Germany, has been more proactive in this regard, and that country's Green Party has exerted more political power than any other environment-guarding political formation. Elsewhere in Europe, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries have also demonstrated more commitment to protecting the environment, with less rhetoric but more action on the ground.

Now, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy is anxious to greenwash his country's image as he becomes the President of the EU for a six-month term from 1 July. At the end of a four-month-long forum on the environment last October, which brought together government officials, industry and NGOs, he declared: "I want this forum to be the founding act of a new kind of politics. An environmental new deal in France and the world." Among the slew of measures that he announced were a freeze on building new highways and airports, a massive shift of heavy freight from road to rail and a commitment to halve pesticide use within 10 years. France is Europe's biggest agricultural producer.

As French External Affairs Ministry officials told visiting Indian journalists recently, the environment is now deeply engrained in the public consciousness. One of the most striking examples in Paris is the Velib, or public hire bicycle. There are 25,000 of these sleek silver bikes tethered to posts around the capital. Anyone can hire a bike for one Euro an hour, using a credit card, and drop it off at any of the 1450 stations in the city. In one year, there have been as many as 2 million hires, which must have reduced the use of cars. It is run by a private company, Decaux, which uses IT to track which stations have bikes and ensure their availability. Such expertise is surely available in India too. The Mumbai-based IT company, Mastek has designed the software by which London operates its traffic congestion charge for cars entering the central business district during rush hour.

The nuclear dimension

If there is one reason why France's carbon dioxide emissions per capita are only 60 per cent of those from Germany, it is because 80 per cent of its electricity is nuclear. And its electricity cost is one of the lowest in Europe. According to France's Commissariat for Atomic Energy, nuclear energy is an indispensable weapon in the battle against climate change, which is anathema to most environmentalists. Indeed, German Greens have made their opposition to it a fundamental tenet. Even the US hasn't built a nuclear power plant since 1978. However, the Commissariat points to the duplicity of countries like Austria, which has vowed not to go nuclear, but doesn't think twice about buying such power from its neighbours.

At the Copenhagen conference next year to decide on the future after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, France will argue that nuclear power should be included in the Clean Development Mechanism, under which developing countries can gain tradeable credits for reducing carbon emissions by switching to this form of energy. The UN's top climate change official, Yvo de Boer, has himself made a similar demand. For France, reliance on nuclear energy, the highest of any country in the world, is not negotiable.

At the Copenhagen conference next year to decide on the future after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, France will argue that nuclear power should be included in the Clean Development Mechanism.

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Global nuclear power capacity grew by less than 2000 MW in 2007, a figure equivalent to just one-tenth of the new wind power installed globally last year, according to the latest Vital Signs Update from the Worldwatch Institute. Global nuclear capacity stands at 372,000 MW, but ranks as the slowest growing energy source-just 0.5 per cent in 2007, compared to wind at 27 per cent.

At the end of 2007, some 34 nuclear reactors were being built worldwide, 12 of which had been under construction for 20 years or more. Asia accounts for the most nuclear power plant construction, with 20 new reactors currently under way. India and China each have six reactors under construction, together accounting for 8130 MW, or more than a quarter of the nuclear capacity currently being built worldwide. More than 124 reactors have been retired by the commercial nuclear industry since 1964, amounting to a total of 36,800 MW of generating capacity.

France is interested in nuclear cooperation with India, and the two governments have initialled a pact already. "The nuclear rationale is very important. It is legitimate for us to develop cooperation with India," the Commissariat argues. "The 123 agreement between India and the US has a life of its own. We are waiting for more informal agreements." Currently, there are only scientific agreements in place, whereas French companies would like to sell their technology here. Future shortages of uranium also don't worry France's nuclear industry much, because nuclear fuel forms only 5 per cent of the total cost of power plants.

In some respects, France is comparable to India; it doesn't boast a significant fossil fuel industry of its own, and has to depend largely on imports. French politicians and companies alike believe that nuclear is the fuel of the future, because of the independence from other nations that it provides, and that its efficient management and safety record of nuclear operations have convinced the public of the merits of this energy. At the same time, 12 per cent of France's energy comes from renewable sources, mainly hydel, which compares favourably with the rest of Europe.

Dr R K Pachauri, who heads The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi as well as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also argues that "the nuclear option will prove to be an extremely important element of India's energy policy" even while conceding that it "carries problems and even significant risks", but believes that India has limited choices. Even if India goes in for the Indo-US deal, nuclear energy will only rise from 4 per cent of the total energy used in this country to 7 per cent. It is therefore a partial solution for a country which has reserves of coal which can last for 300 years at present rates of consumption. Instead of pursuing a chimera in the shape of the nuclear deal, which is also politically volatile at home, India's science and technology establishment should be looking for know-how on cleaner methods of burning coal, apart from renewable technologies.

As Herve Kempf, the environment editor of Le Monde and author of a book titled How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, observes, the excessive dependence on nuclear power has provided an alibi to France not to reduce its emissions. It has still not found a foolproof method of storing radioactive waste, which has a life of 300,000 years. The Commissariat is trying to 'transmute' the waste to last for 300 years and bury it deep in the earth, to make it "more acceptable in human and political terms". But the safe storage of nuclear waste eludes countries, as the UK has discovered at Sellafield, even while Britain is going to 'relaunch' its nuclear energy industry. The key environmental issue, which holds good for all countries, is why France isn't dong enough to reduce energy consumption, while social inequalities have been growing since the 1980s.

France has the world's two biggest water companies - Suez and Veolia, whose names and subsidiaries keep changing. Visiting journalists were briefed by Degremont, a subsidiary of Suez, which has been in business in India since 1954 and now treats 265 million litres of sewage daily. Among its customers are the Karnataka Golf Club, which reuses 1.5 litres of sewage a day; the Maruti car factory in Gurgaon, where its paint shop effluent is treated and reused in the factory; the Sonia Vihar water treatment plant in Delhi, treating 635 million litres a day as drinking water for 3.5 million people and the Bhandup filtration plant in Mumbai, treating 1,910 million litres a day. Over two decades ago, it formed a joint venture with Anand Automotive Systems to handle projects in India and neighbouring countries.

AFD - An instrument of green policy

The French development agency, Agence Francaise de Developpment or AFD, is convinced that France has to help emerging economies like India's grow while reducing their carbon footprint. "Even if you put all the French on bikes, it won't make a difference to the planet's climate," an AFD report acknowledges. Environment and natural resources account for the biggest amount of France's aid, which totalled 3 billion euros last year. However, it makes no bones about the fact that it is increasingly looking at "non-sovereign" parties - ie the private sector - to extend loans and other assistance. It contributes 0.47% of its GDP as aid, as against an OECD commitment of 0.7%, and this includes its contributions to multilateral institutions like the World Bank. AFD opened a representative office in Delhi last May and provides 120-150 million euros per year as aid, mainly as technological expertise and technology transfer.

Environment and natural resources account for the biggest amount of France's aid, which totalled 3 billion euros last year.

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France is treading on another environmentally controversial sector - hydroelectricity, in which it is a leading player. AFD officials told visiting journalists: "We feel you have to have hydel: coal presents too many problems. Of course, you have to manage the social and environmental impacts of hydro projects. We believe in small and medium-sized dams, as well as run-of-the-river plants. India's north-east states have approached us for these technologies." There are massive plans to dam the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in the north-east, which are bound to raise controversies which will reverberate around the world.

While the AFD would like to become the foreign policy instrument for emerging economies to deploy environmental policies, French political leaders are moving in an entirely different direction. At last years' environment forum, President Sarkozy called for a levy on imports into the EU from countries which have not made commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. At the time, this 'carbon equalization scheme' was thought to apply to the US and Australia (whose new Prime Minister has since signed the treaty). However, as an earlier article in this publication (see here) observed, this is a protectionist measure to insulate Europe's industries from goods from emerging economies like cement and steel, which are energy-intensive in their manufacture.

French External Affairs Ministry officials argue that if countries agree to a global regime after 2012, it will not be efficient unless it covers all emitters. There could be "carbon leakage" from some countries, which include developing nations. Hence the introduction of a "border adjustment mechanism" , which will however run the gauntlet of the WTO as a non-tariff barrier. This only goes to show that when it comes to the crunch, industrial countries will protect their own interests, rather than observe the principle of "common, but differentiated responsibility" in global environmental politics. If this is President Sarkozy's "new deal in France and the world", developing countries will reject it.

Environment and development are two sides of the same coin. As an advanced industrial economy, France wants to position itself as a country which is keeping pace with the 21st century and that necessarily implies that it has to take steps to protect the environment. In Europe, industries which don't adhere to increasingly severe greenhouse gas emission norms will find themselves at a big disadvantage, as the Tatas are discovering with the purchase of the Jaguar & Land Rover, both heavy vehicles. The EU, it is well known, leads the campaign to reduce carbon emissions, committing itself to a 20 per cent reduction by 2020.