[Interview] Climate, energy, and biodiversity… Why a regional approach is best when tackling the world’s most pressing challenges

Climate emergency is on everyone’s mind, and on this question, the feeling is that we need to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy, less consuming of resources and re-anchored in local territories. The systemic fragilities that manifested during the Covid-19 pandemic are prompting us to make progress, but at what territorial scale should we take action, when everything is inextricably linked? What should be our priorities, and what tools can we deploy? Benoit Hartmann, a geographer, an expert on the environment, former director of France Nature Environnement, former DG of the CLER network for energy transition, offers us his insights on the matter.

How do you see the crisis provoked by the coronavirus?

The crisis we are in is strongly linked to global warming. The anthropic origin of this, namely greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) and the destruction of ecosystems, leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind. Identifying a correlation between the emergence of new viruses and global warming is nothing new! We know for certain that wide-scale deforestation, notably intertropical, not only contributes to climate deregulation, but favours the appearance and propagation of new zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. Elsewhere, with warming in higher latitudes, the permafrost is melting fast and liberating, apart from large quantities of methane, bacteria and viruses that are potentially dangerous for humans. The current pandemic, the first social and economic consequences of which we are only just beginning to glimpse, only confirms the urgency of the energy transition we have to make, and more widely, the ecological transition that goes with it.

Do you think this event might have the potential to accelerate the transition to a carbon free economy?

I doubt it… The health crisis is hardly behind us and our old short-termist and productivist demons are back: the imperative is to relaunch the economy, and unfortunately that means rebooting sectors that are the most consuming of fossil fuels. But the urgency is precisely to leave these energies behind to reduce carbon missions that are at the root of the problem. Under the pretext of relaunching agriculture, we are already compromising on measures put in place to reduce pesticide use, an area we had been making significant progress. There are also waivers on throw-away plastic bags. And naturally, there is huge pressure, with threats of job losses from lobbies for the automobile, air transport, tourism, international commerce industries, to not just restart, but to ‘catch-up’ on the two months during which everything came to a standstill. So, sadly, the ‘world after’ seems to be taking off on the baselines of the ‘world before’ with the same flawed thinking, and just as many aircraft, lorries, if not more…

And yet, the issues of ‘relocalising’ the economy, or de-globalization’, have never been so high on the agenda… In what way is thinking ‘local’ the key to the transition we need to make?

I am convinced the solutions we need will come from the territories. What we need to understand is that the energy transition depends on three dynamics: carbon energies going out, renewable energies being developed, and a reduction in consumption overall. France is living under a false illusion, of virtue and autonomy because its electricity is mostly of nuclear origin (79%). In reality, France’s carbon footprint is shamefully high. Why? Because almost two thirds of the energy it consumes is not electricity, but oil (44%) and gas (19%)  [source – 2017] – to produce goods and services, of course, but also for heating water and buildings, and above allto transport raw materials, goods, and people.


These fossil energies raise our carbon footprint. And as we import them, they also lower our trade balance, because they account for nearly two thirds of our overall trade deficit [source: Ministry of Economy and Finance, Le commerce extérieur de la France, Rapport 2020].

So, if we want to reduce our CO2 emissions and our dependence on oil, we must – as a priority – reduce the transport of goods. This effectively means relocating a certain number of activities, in particular food production, and increasing local production of renewable energies, notably to feed residential populations. With a view to building resilience, we need to aim for greater alimentary and energetic autonomy for territories. But when we say ‘local’ or ‘territory’, we are talking about relative notionsThe whole question depends on defining geographical entities at a scale at which the search for autonomy becomes feasible.

How do we know what scale we should be aiming to work at?

Reasoning at town or city level doesn’t make sense: cities are extremely diverse in size, in population density, degree of urbanisation, agricultural land, energy consumption, etc. For example, an isolated town or city, especially if very urbanised, cannot aspire to energetic autonomy or become a TEPOS (a territory with positive energy), producing more energy than it consumes. To achieve this, it would have to cooperate with other, more rural, communes that consume less energy but have vast amounts of space available to produce renewable energy. And to define partnerships that are viable in terms of energy consumption and/or food consumption, we need geographers, geo-mathematicians, cartographers who will use tools such as those in the GEOCONCEPT range to analyse, model, and map the available data. We would need this to enable us to understand the functioning of each component and make projections for consumption and production potential in order to find the right perimeter and the right balance. The diversity of situations means that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The definition of a territory aiming for carbon neutrality or energy-positive status requires a lot of work that towns or regional authorities are not able to do without partnership support and expertise.

This territorial approach also means that we have to move from centralised electricity production to a decentralised model. That seems to be complicated…

It’s not simple, but we know how to do it. And above all, we know that our model, based on gross units of production, nuclear and thermal, with heavy HV cables travelling in all directions, is not a resilient model. What we need to move towards, with the aim of making the transition to renewable energies, are small units – aeolians, geothermics, photovoltaics, small dams… – spread out over the whole of the territory, and linked up in such a way as to enable one unit to complement the other, with inbuilt relay systems between units, that would kick in for example, when there is a lack of wind in one location, not enough sunshine at another, or the reverse. This assumes a much denser grid than today. Here again, the grid can only be thought out using modern geography tools, statistics, and in-depth knowledge of the territory, because it is not intuitive. It can only be realised through a smartgrid type of infrastructure, an ‘intelligent grid’ that handles the relays in real time as a function of demand and production capacities.

The solutions are known. The technologies exist. How do you explain the fact that progress remains slow in the energy transition?

We are moving forward, but only in a start-stop kind of way, because it isn’t the environmental crisis triggering the steps forward, but the price of oil and tension in the market. Every time the oil price falls, as it has recently, we stop moving forward. Every time we have a period of oil prices riding high, we move forward. For the time being, we are depending heavily on our nuclear installations which are getting old and all that that implies in terms of risk. We are also completely dependent on a very costly logistic of transporting goods by road. How long have we been hearing talk of transferring from road to rail? France used to have a fabulous rail network. We could have built on this for our goods transport, and reserved the use of lorries and HGVs to take the goods the last 150 or 200 kilometers: this would have ensured a better quality of life for drivers. We have the expertise and can master this solution well, but it assumes a massive investment in rail networks. It wouldn’t bring in revenue in the short term to compensate for the expenditure. Unless it’s a State-led policy subsidised right up to the point where it becomes profitable vis-a-vis lorry transport, it will never work!

Over and above the investment required, energetic transition takes time. Is this compatible with the climate emergency?

The question of timescales is an interesting one. There are two major ecological crises in France: the biodiversity crisis, and the climatic one. They are interlinked, of course, but they are inscribed in different temporalities. Biodiversity can be healed relatively quickly: we stop fishing red tuna in the Mediterranean for 3 years and the stocks reconstitute to a large extent and we can start fishing again, in a measured way. So biodiversity can come back quite quickly – on condition we stop polluting rivers and the land, and stop destroying natural spaces. This requires investment, but it’s gratifying, because we can see the results. Politically it is not too difficult to take this on because, even if expensive, citizens will be satisfied to find their issues being addressed.

As for the climate, that’s another story! Every one of us has noticed one sign or other: that plant never used to come into flower this early, or, for several winters now… But global warming is above all a global given, abstract, that we can’t really feel. It brings about imbalances locally, but it’s a complex matter to establish a link between cause and effect, for example when this manifests as more rain, or more snow in different places around the globe. This is not helpful when trying to fight back! The urgency is understood intellectually, but as the real degradation is barely perceptible, there is a strong temptation to remain in denial, and to say that future generations will find the solution ‘in due time’. In some way this amounts to ‘Let someone else sort out the problem once I’ve gone.. ‘

The other factor that makes the fight against climate change very difficult is that the effort we are investing now will only yield results in 100 or 150 years’ time. We have to accept that the carbon cycle is 100 to 150 years. The solutions for reducing carbon emissions require the same length of time to take effect. Spending hundreds of thousands for results in 100 or 150 years is politically very difficult to sell to the population at large. This is why the struggle against climate change must be rolled out at territory level, and through energy and ecology transition policies, the benefits of which inhabitants can perceive within years on an economic level, and in terms of quality of life.  

So long as our economic and social model is geared to consumption and growth, is it possible to be virtuous?

Our model is extremely harmful to the planet, but it is truly a model, and one to which non-western populations aspire. The alternative model, championed by those who, above all, do not want to see change, is that of ‘degrowth’ and that really is scary. But looking at the ‘always more’ approach – products we have to constantly replace so that the engine keeps turning – I really believe in some of the alternatives to this we can see today, such as the economy of functionality: instead of selling an object, an enterprise sells the service that delivers the object. For example, an automobile constructor would no longer sell cars, but a service, and solutions for travel that can be ‘all car’ or car and bicycle. These mobility solutions can be individual or in shared mode, for a journey that is defined or not, via a subscription or on demand. In this configuration, it is in the interests of the constructor to make sure their cars are built to last, are interoperable and easy to repair, and ultra-efficient. Manufacturers no longer earn their money by selling as many cars as possible but by maximising their utilisation and their lifespan.

This model cannot be applied to everything, and so long as it still has to be conceived and built to a large extent, it is one of the virtuous solutions for tomorrow’s economy, including for employment, because it would bring about investment in design and innovation: to produce products that are durable, manufacture them, and dream up the service offerings, define the scaling, localise and optimize existing product ranges as a function of the variables demand, repair, and recycle… At an economic level, this is certainly virtuous, but it is that, too, on the ecological and climatic plane, because you would be delivering the same services while consuming a lot less raw materials, energy, and producing less CO2. But if we want industry to move in this direction and consumers to adhere to the transformation, it is vital that the collateral benefits – ecological and climatic – are quantified, rewarded and valorised. 

We will find these solutions of necessity, because necessity will rule. To succeed, when we are forced to do so, we will be depending on the people who are our leaders. Those who are thinking out this new economy, these new territories, the tools for control and optimization, are the people who can deliver solutions. It is to them we will be turning when the urgency will be such that we no longer have any choice.

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