‘Climate change should interest more people than it does’

France’s go-to expert on global warming and bestselling author, Jean-Marc Jancovici, talks to us about the future of our planet

Jean-Marc Jancovici talks to us about drought, nuclear energy and why technology is not the answer to climate change
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Nearly every newspaper article about Jean-Marc Jancovici includes a verb such as explain, observe, consider, or ponder.

French journalists deliberately draw upon around 30 different verbs to avoid the repetition of ‘he said’ and ‘he added’ that their English-speaking counterparts often favour.

In Mr Jancovici’s case, however, the press does this not for stylistic reasons. Instead, they aim to add nuance to the opinions of one of the most vocal figures on the hot topic of climate change.

Mr Jancovici is a teacher, an engineering consultant, energy and climate expert, conference speaker, creator of the carbon accounting concept, and president of The Shift Project, a think tank advocating the shift to a post-carbon economy. 

But most of all, he is the person who has popularised ecology issues to the French public.

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It certainly seems that people listen to his advice, directions, points and arguments on ecological issues as if he were an oracle. Not a single week passes by without him being interviewed on TV or invited to speak at conferences.

It also looks as if Mr Jancovici is the public figure talking the most sense to French leaders and citizens about what the country should or should not do about tackling global warming.

In a nutshell, he believes that international leaders should engage in ecological planning, and that 100% renewable energy is a pipe dream.

The Connexion spoke with him about the future of our planet and the upcoming English versions of his book, Le Monde sans Fin, which was France’s number-one bestseller of 2022. 

It is a book about environmental issues in a comic book style, led by a ‘superhero’ Ironman.

Concerning planet Earth, are we screwed? 

“We are bound to die. It is only a matter of time,” as philosopher and economist John Maynard Keynes said. 

Whether that is now or in four billion years when the sun swallows up the Earth, the answer is yes. 

Is there nothing more to look forward to because we will have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels? No. Are we overestimating how easy it will be to get there? Yes. Will humanity be destroyed in the near future? No. 

Ecosystems and human beings will survive and adapt, even on an Earth that is 4C° hotter. 

Will such a violent impact on our ecosystem and the stress on our resource system guarantee a population of eight billion people each with a life expectancy of 70 years? That’s less certain. 

Are we screwed? No. Can we sleep easy? Not really. How do we find the best way forward? It is an ongoing quest that should interest more people than it does.

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I have just finished a book on the Dust Bowl phenomenon. How many Dust Bowls are already blowing towards us? And how many more will there be if nothing happens? 

Anticipating the forthcoming consequences of global warming with such precision is almost impossible. 

The Dust Bowl is a precise example with specific phenomena and consequences. For example, who could have predicted that Spanish people would steal olive branches with olives on them directly from the trees? 

Forecasting the increasingly difficult conditions of agriculture is a given and easier than saying: “In 2023, Spanish people will steal olive branches.”

Most experts forecasted that the Maghreb would get drier. But how many could have predicted the dangerously low levels of reservoirs? 

No one 10 years ago could have said if today these lakes would be at 4, 10, 15, 20 or 50% of their capacity. 

What will make global warming more or less serious is whether the reservoirs will be 16 or 50% full, whether this will happen in 2024 or 2038, and where. 

These things are pretty difficult to predict with precision. That is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to take action. 

As humans, when we do not know what we are up against, we procrastinate.

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What will France look like if the Earth is 2°C hotter? Many of our readers live along coastal regions such as Brittany, Normandy or in the south of France…

I can’t give you the specifics here either. 

What is already known is that from 10 to 20% of French forests will die if the climate stays that warm. 

People living in the south of France have already observed some of the consequences with drought and the resulting water restrictions. 

A fire burned in Brittany’s Brocéliande forest two summers ago which was already unforeseeable. 

But there are so many other factors that are difficult to predict, such as viruses, giant wasps, and the survival of the fittest species, for example.

In a world warmed up by two degrees Celsius, floods and storms increase a hundredfold. It means that coastal France could be hit with 100 devastating cyclones and the inevitable loss of lives.

Read more: Climate change in France: People ‘do not understand what’s coming’

Can you map out the French energy landscape? What does the country rely on and in what quantities?

Much like the UK, France relies primarily on fossil fuels, since oil, gas and coal are the three main energy sources. 

It is even more significant if every energy source used for the production of goods imported to France is included.

The overall picture includes oil products in first place. Nuclear comes second, gas third, then renewable energies, hydroelectricity and coal.

Oil, gas and coal represent 53% of the country’s consumption, nuclear 32%, renewable energies 10%, and hydroelectricity 5%. 

Great Britain, by comparison, relies on oil, gas and coal for 75% of its consumption, with nuclear only 6% and renewable energies at nearly 20%.

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You said that Europe has been slowing production. Explain it to us

For the production-supply of its domestic energy, yes. The all-time high of energy production peaked in 2007.

Conventional oil production peaked in 2008, gas production in the 2000s, coal around the 1950s, hydroelectricity has not grown since the early 2000s, and more and more nuclear plants have closed in many places.

Is this a good or a bad thing?

Apart from the loss of nuclear plants, it is a good thing. 

The only country suffering from fewer nuclear plants is the UK, a rare case of a country willing to have more plants but ending up with fewer because the reactors cannot be renewed.

Hence my speech about Europe contracting. 

The construction sector has been shrinking since 2008, trucks carry fewer tons of goods, and disposable income has decreased since 2010. 

While renewable energies are ascending, they do not compensate for the decline of everything else. 

You have on the one hand a growing GDP that does not correspond to an increase in goods or wages. 

This then fuels populism because the middle class suffers impoverishment and turns to populist parties in search of scapegoats.

An average French person consumes 4.76 tons of carbon dioxide per year, far more than the required two tons to keep the country below a 2C° increase. Does it mean we all need to consume half what we do now?

Your number represents domestic carbon emissions only. 

What is to be taken into account is the carbon footprint, so all emissions required to maintain the lifestyle of a French person. That brings the number to 10 tons. That is what needs to drop to two.

To make it happen, it needs to take into account every sector that can be decarbonised. 

The construction sector is one of the easiest, considering materials can be changed for ecologically friendlier ones. 

It is within our reach but the country is still not doing enough.

Sectors with a transport component will require a more drastic ‘diet’. 

Powering 40 million cars with electricity in such a short time looks very difficult. Their production remains dependent on oil, from the tyres to the machines making them.

There is going to be an even greater problem with freight transportation.

Electric lorries are a pipe dream, not to mention the mounting task to electrify all our motorways, which is not underway either. 

Air transport cannot be decarbonised and industry in general is also very difficult. We need to see a lot of changes.

I do not see how society can maintain these current physical streams and keep global warming below the 2C° increase.

There needs to be a contraction. It means we will have fewer things, less often. 

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You have been talking publicly about global warming for 20 years and have become the French go-to expert on the issue. What has changed over time?

The issue is far more mainstream in the media and in political discourse. 

We are also more indecisive in our eco anxiety, with a growing realisation that whatever we do, it is not the right thing. 

The overall outlook on global warming has changed, thanks to the visibility of its effects.

While experts no longer deny global warming, their arguments have moved towards the idea that technology will solve it. 

Engineers are portrayed as being able to come up with solutions such as hydrogen-powered planes, pedal cars, sustainable housing etc.

The minimisation of the problem has switched from acknowledging global warming to how we should tackle it. 

Twenty years ago it did not exist. Now it is no longer an issue because technology is going to solve it.

Le Monde sans Fin will be released in the US in May and then in the UK. Is global warming explained to Americans and Britons in the same way as it is to French people?

While Great Britain has had Brexit, British people remain close enough to Europe to understand what it is. They know what a kilowatt is and they use bicycles much more than Americans.

They also know EDF, the French company that is the main shareholder and electricity producer in Great Britain. So the British version is the European version.

The American version was heavily adjusted for Americans. The metric-system, the comparison size with countries and the examples were all explained with American references. 

The main character, Iron Man, was changed to The Armour to avoid a lawsuit by Marvel.