Paris — French President Emmanuel Macron won praise for putting the Amazon forest fires at the top of the global agenda, but back at home green advocates would like to see less talk and more action.

Two years since pledging to “Make Our Planet Great Again” after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Macron’s domestic green achievements have not lived up to his promise. An attempt to increase taxes on fossil fuels crumbled in the face of protests, the expansion of renewable energy is still hindered by red tape, and legacy power plants have not yet been shut down.

“On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron deserves credit for almost all his speeches” on the environment, said Arnaud Gossement, a Paris-based lawyer who works for clean power developers. “On the other hand, most of his actions fall short.”

Like fellow European leaders, Macron is walking a fine line between growing public concern that the climate is changing and the immediate cost to households of the transition to low-carbon energy. The president is pulled in one direction by those seeking to preserve jobs in the nuclear industry, the oil and gas business, and farming, and in the other by proponents of wind and solar power, cleaner vehicles, and soil protection.

The ferocity of the protests against tax increases on petrol, in which so-called “Yellow Vests” protesters blocked roads and fuel depots, burnt vehicles on the streets of Paris, and ransacked banks, underscores the risk of getting the balance wrong.

Forest fight

As world leaders gathered in the French resort of Biarritz in August for a meeting of the Group of Seven, Macron decided to tear up the formal agenda and focus the summit instead on the record number of forest fires ravaging the Amazon. He went on to accuse Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro of lying about efforts to protect forests and threatening to torpedo a EU trade deal with South America, a proposal several of the bloc’s other leaders rejected.

Even this forceful approach on a crucial environmental issue drew mixed reviews in France. Former ecology minister Nicolas Hulot, who resigned a year ago for what he described as a lack of action on a number of environmental issues, said in a tweet that the president must follow up his tough words with a ban on imports of Brazilian agricultural products.

The French president’s office didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Red tape

Regarding domestic policy, Macron’s pledge to boost wind and solar power has been marred by an insufficient reduction in red tape that hampers clean power developments, said Gossement, who is also a board member of French solar business federation Enerplan. Promises to close a nuclear plant from 2020 and to shut coal-fired power plants by 2022 have yet to be enacted, he said.

For Gwenaelle Avice-Huet, the head of renewables at French utility Engie, Macron has positive achievements, but could go further.

“There’s been a real effort in recent years to simplify proceedings” for renewable projects, Avice-Huet said. The energy and climate draft bill and the country’s energy road map “are very positive items to quicken renewables in France”.

The bill, due to be adopted in parliament in coming weeks, aims to trim the use of fossil fuels 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 by cutting red tape for renewable energy projects, and adding incentives for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of homes. The legislation will also prod most coal-fired power plants, which provided 1.1% of the country’s electricity in 2018, to close by 2022.

The law sets a road map to replace part of the country’s fleet of nuclear power plants with forms of renewable energy by 2035, and France will aim to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The government is stepping up tenders for solar and offshore wind projects. Macron has introduced or extended subsidies to boost home renovation, the replacement of heating fuel by more efficient gas boilers, and the purchase of cleaner vehicles.

Positive surprise

France still needs to provide more incentives for the development of biogas, and simplify proceedings for the replacement of old wind turbines with bigger, more efficient ones, a process that takes about seven years, Avice-Huet said.

The government should also free up some of its unused land to develop solar farms, a policy it is currently considering, she said.

For Gossement, the acid test comes when the parliament votes in the next months on a government project to boost recycling of waste materials such as plastic.

The recent creation of a citizen council for the environment also suggests that “the state wants to move forward on green taxes, while redistributing the proceeds to those who need it most”.

There may be political benefits for Macron ahead of 2020’s municipal elections, as global warming is a growing cause of concern. In 2019’s European parliament election, Macron’s party, Republic on the Move, received 22.4% of the votes, just shy of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, while the Greens came third with 13.5% of the ballot.

“Opinions polls are good for the Greens, so it’s in Macron’s interests to have something to show to voters,” Gossement said. “Emmanuel Macron can still surprise us positively.”