France goes green with switch from air to rail

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President Nicolas Sarkozy last night declared a "green" French revolution which will cut the nation's energy consumption and carbon emissions, reduce road and air transport and promote organic farming.

He was speaking after a two-day national conference intended to place France at the cutting edge of global action to protect the environment.

The outcome of the conference was mixed: radical in some areas but timid and mealy-mouthed in others. There was a pledge to sharply reduce France's carbon "footprint" from road and air transport and from home heating. There was a promise to increase organic farming to six per cent of the total land area in five years and to 20 per cent by 2020.

But the conference, under severe pressure from farmers, ditched plans to impose a sharp reduction in France's lavish use of pesticides. Plans to impose a "carbon tax" on industry were also postponed for "further study". Proposals for a cut in road speed limits were rejected.

M. Sarkozy, nonetheless, hailed the meeting as an "important moment" in a shift away from a "production and consumer" society to a world which rejected "waste" and accepted the need to defend the "future of the planet".

He promised to implement all the agreements reached over two days by a conference of politicians, employers, trades unions, ecological pressure groups and farmers – claimed to be the first meeting of its kind in the world.

The conference would, M. Sarkozy said, start a "revolution in our way of thinking, in our way of making decisions, a revolution in our way of life".

Environmental campaigners were, on the whole, satisfied with the outcome of the meeting – especially a government commitment to freeze investment in new airports and motorways and shift spending towards rail and canal transport.

The French ecological campaigner, Nicolas Hulot, who forced almost all the candidates to sign a "green pact" before the presidential elections in May, said: "We have entered the ecological era. We have entered the time of action, not words."

Other environmental campaigners were, however, angered by a last-minute concession to the farming lobby, which strangled a plan to cut France's use of agricultural pesticides by half in 10 years. Instead, the conference agreed a largely meaningless statement promising to cut pesticide use by 50 per cent by no fixed date, when "alternatives" were available.

In this, and several other areas, M. Sarkozy's relatively recent conversion to green politics appeared to conflict with his other statements and priorities. In a speech in July, M. Sarkozy promised French farmers that he would push for a "high production" agricultural model in Europe. This week's conference agreed that France should push towards a much greater proportion of organic – and almost certainly – low production farming.

The conference agreed a new tax on lorries on non-motorway roads and promised a shift from road transport to railways and canals (including 3,000 miles of high-speed railways in the next 23 years). At the same time, the French state railways, the SNCF, has just announced a winding-down of part of its freight operations.

Moderate environmental campaigners were, nonetheless, surprised that the conference – after four months of negotiations and public consultations – had found so much common ground.

There were agreements to impose heating insulation standards on public buildings and introduce a tax-or-susbsidy system to encourage the purchase of environmentally friendly cars.