France Discovers 'Energy Sobriety'—What Is It?

This is something everyone could do; it is not about giving things up as much as cutting back.

Eiffel Tower at sunset

Eric Schaeffer / Getty Images

The French are known for a certain joie de vivre and often enjoy wine with lunch, even on working days. According to the Official Nanny State Index, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, it is actually less of a nanny state than the United Kingdom, where the prime minister insists she doesn't want to tell people what to do.

But when it comes to energy consumption, it is gone full "nounou," the French word for nanny. In the land where wine is part of daily life, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for “energy sobriety.”

And where former U.S. President Jimmy Carter famously put on a cardigan sweater, a la Mr. Rogers, Macron is sporting a very cool turtle neck sweater, making one of those simple changes that people make when soberly looking at what should be done in an energy crisis. They are also turning down thermostats and darkening monuments, which in the LED age won't save a lot of electricity but will send a message. The Deputy Mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Gregoire, said, “We must stop believing that people are only attracted by light. People are not mosquitoes," reported the Wall Street Journal.

Sobriété or sobriety is an interesting term—apparently only used in France—with a meaning very close to what we have called sufficiency, or just using what you need. Olivier Sidler of the Association Négawatt said "sobriety means reducing our consumption by changing our lifestyles, uses and behavior.” At one point I thought sobriety was simply the French word for sufficiency—they were so close. But Association Négawatt has descriptions for both sufficiency, which seems to be a long-term plan, and sobriety, which is an action for the short and medium term.

It appears to have been developed by French sociology professor Marie-Christine Zélem and is described by the environmental website Up to Us as having several dimensions:

  • Sobriety of use, which consists in reducing the duration, use, or frequency of use of energy-consuming equipment.
  • Sobriety of substitution, i.e., replacing an appliance with a less energy-consuming alternative or ventilating a room instead of air-conditioning it.
  • Sobriety of dimension, which means adjusting the use and size of appliances according to our needs, for example, by heating a room only when it is used.
  • Collaborative sobriety, which relies on the sharing of equipment to save energy - this is the case with carpooling. Speaking of these different types of sobriety, Marie-Christine Zélem adds that “all of them make it possible to save energy without reducing the comfort of our modern lives”.

It is all about making sensible choices about cutting back. France's energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher told a TV Station: “Sobriety isn’t to stop living, working and receiving tourists. Sobriety is making the savings that make the most sense in terms of energy consumption.”

The published version of the Energy Sobriety Plan, published in early 2022, included:

  • buildings (maximum temperature of 19 degrees Celsius in offices, 15-day delay in the start and end of the heating period, reduction in the use of domestic hot water in offices)
  • transport (privileged use of bicycles, public transport, or carpooling)
  • the State (heating at 18 degrees C ​​and work in staggered hours on days of high voltage on the electricity network, incentive to work from home in order to reduce fuel consumption, speed limit of 110 kilometers per hour on motorways for agents employing their service vehicle during non-urgent business trips, reduction of energy consumption of digital origin, etc.)
  • local authorities (reduction in electricity consumption linked to public lighting, limitation of the heating of sports equipment, and reduction in the number of heated square meters by grouping public services in more suitable premises);
  • companies (switching off the interior lighting of buildings when the premises are unoccupied and reduction of exterior lighting, in particular, advertising, control of heating, air conditioning and ventilation, elimination of unnecessary travel, etc.)
  • individuals (implementation of a sobriety bonus for households controlling their energy consumption, aid to switch from a gas boiler to a heat pump in individual housing

None of these actions are dire or particularly onerous, but they all add up. Energy sobriety appears to be the actions one takes to achieve sufficiency. But as Treehugger's Margaret Badore, who has been helping me with the subtleties of French language notes, it relates well to the traditional English meaning of the word. Badore concludes: "I also think sobriété/sobriety has an interesting way of implying we've been drunk on too much energy consumption. It's time to sober up and see things clearly! Otherwise, we'll have a climate hangover."