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Call for ‘energy sobriety’ in France shows gap between rich and poor

Companies are committing to energy-saving as part of a new ‘sobriété énergétique’ but experts say not everyone can afford to change their lifestyle

Turning off lights when retailers close for the night is a step in the right direction, but soaring energy bills could “threaten social cohesion” Pic: TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock

France is moving toward ‘energy sobriety’ as more people and public and private companies are being asked to reduce their energy use in a phenomenon dubbed ‘sobriété énergétique.’

Efforts have been agreed to combat the rise in inflation for energy resources and meet the demands of an overwhelming chunk of the population that look to reduce the global human carbon footprint and slow down consumption.

Read more: Heating, transport, télétravail: What is France’s energy saving plan?

Retailers turn the lights off

Eleven of France’s most renowned retail brands will implement a list of measures designed to decrease the overall energy consumption in their stores on October 15.

The measures include the turning off of lights during closed hours, an overall decrease of 50% of lightning consumption when in service as well as “other measures for a more sober use of energy resources”.

Joint plea from energy companies

The decision coincided with separate calls from 84 French CEOs to go ‘sober’ and the CEOs of France’s main three energy-provider companies to cut back on usage amid a risk of shortages and soaring prices that threaten “social cohesion” this winter.

“The effort must be immediate, collective and massive. Every little helps,” said Patrick Pouyanné (TotalEnergies), Jean-Bernard Lévy (EDF) and Catherine MacGregor (Engie) in a rare joint article published in the Journal du dimanche (JDD).

Read more: French energy firms offer up to €120 discount to those who cut usage

Government pushing energy sobriety

“This is very good for the climate and our independence. These are intertwined battles,” said President Emmanuel Macron as he laid France’s roadmap to sobriety in gas and electricity when interviewed on July 14 by TF1’s Anne-Claire Coudray and France 2’s Caroline Roux.

Jumping on the bandwagon of sobriété énergétique could save France 28% of energy consumption by 2050, according to the association négaWatt.

Energy Transition Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said she hopes to reduce France’s energy consumption by 10% in the next two years. 

Change more difficult for less well-off

A bevy of studies over recent years have shown that French people have already changed their consumption habits and expressed the hope to live in a society where consumption was less prominent.

But the nationwide consensus will face challenges in the months ahead, since the ambitions behind sobriété énergétique vary from one party to another and its concept is economically discriminatory. 

Indeed, sobriété énergétique may prove difficult for people unable to transition to light transportation or turn to more healthy but expensive food solutions such as organic products. 

Energy consumption among rich will increase

The richest 1% are expected to spend 30 times more in carbon footprint than the limit set by the Paris agreement on the increase of 1.5 degree of the climate by 2030, according to a study* from Oxfam. 

The richest 10% are expected to rise nine times higher than expected.

Graduate speeches from France’s top university and business school students asking to turn away a wealthy business career for the interest of the planet are another example of the gap between classes since many of them come from France’s wealthiest.

Individuals cannot take all responsibility

“When you are already barely scraping by and counting every penny, it is harder to throw oneself [into sobriété énergétique],” said Sandra Hoibian, director of the Research centre for the study and observation of living conditions (Credoc) and who wrote on ‘sobriété’ in a 2019 book.

Read more: French copropriétés split energy bills by usage to cope with rises

Studies from Credoc have shown that French people were experiencing a fatigue about taking upon individual responsibilities to reduce their energy consumption, asking that more should be done by administrations and private companies. 

Ms Hoibian said energy companies were still showing resistance to the phenomenon, taking the example of the regulations around advertising from the Citizens Convention for Climate.

While the Convention had required regulations to every company with excessive greenhouse gas emissions, Mr Macron only ordered a reduction for fossil fuel companies.

Ms Hoibian said more information should now be given to households, with people often unaware which equipment is more energy-intensive than the other. 

*The study was conducted by Oxfam and written by Tim Gore from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and based on study-works from the IEEP and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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