Outside, we sweat profusely, but at work, Nicolas* puts on his sweatshirt. The computer scientist ensures that during the hot weather this summer, the air conditioning was set well below 26 degrees, the regulatory limit, in the giant hangar where his office is located. “With my colleagues, we ended up making jokes about it, I ask them if we shouldn’t turn on the heating”, the employee of a sports equipment store is having fun. “There are a lot of unoccupied offices and meeting rooms, we air-condition empty spaces, that’s what is impressive”he continues, more seriously.
Beyond the climate emergency, energy savings have become a pressing issue in the face of gas supply difficulties linked to the war in Ukraine and the shutdown of some thirty nuclear reactors in France, which fear cuts this winter. The government calls on companies and administrations to be energy sober. During the Medef back-to-school meeting, Elisabeth Borne asked companies to reduce their energy consumption by 10%.
While some are at the forefront, the government’s call for “general mobilization” for energy sobriety does not seem to have reached the ears of all the bosses. Laura, an electrical engineer, can attest to this. In the lobby of his company, in the offices, in the corridors, “1.20m LCD screens are lit continuously to say hello, to display horoscopes or the weather forecast”. A real waste, laments the 30-year-old: “I have a little nausea that rises in the morning seeing all these screens.” What also bothers the young woman is the gap between her employer’s stated ecological ambitions and reality. His company, a subcontractor in the electricity sector, has taken the turn of renewable energies.
“We produce charging stations for electric cars, we could install them in our parking lot, but no! We prefer to renew the fleet with large cars with thermal engines.”
Laura lives in a rural area and uses her car to go to work. “The majority of my colleagues do 30 km a day on mountain roads”, she relates. But since the Covid-19 crisis, “we can no longer carpool so everyone comes with their own vehicle”. To limit polluting trips, she would like to telecommute, but ensures that her company does not allow her. The young mother is even reluctant to resign. “I am a link in the chain by continuing to work here. I have two kids, I am afraid for them”she sighs.
In the public sector, practices are not always more virtuous. François* would like the hospital in which he works in New Aquitaine to lead by example: “We are the biggest employer in the department, if we don’t act, who will?” In his service, each consultation room is equipped with a computer which remains on continuously. According to this doctor, if some devices must remain on standby, others can be turned off because they are not used at night.
The “waste hunt” project should have already started in the administrations, since Elisabeth Borne’s request in July to reduce energy consumption. The Prime Minister had urged the administrations to propose “ministerial plans for energy sobriety and exemplarity”.
The testimony of Isabelle*, official in the judicial protection of youth, shows that not all public services are exemplary. “The coffee machine and the lights are on all the time, even when no one is around. Colleagues leave the air conditioning on in the evening and it runs all night”, despairs the social worker. Without clear instructions from management, it is impossible to change behavior, according to the young woman.
“We are a public service, we should lead by example… But we are thirty years behind.”
Anthony* also regrets the absence of clear rules enacted by his hierarchy. In his IT service company, the choice of the temperature of the air conditioning is left to the employees. However, a decree imposes to regulate it at least on 26 degrees, but no sanction is envisaged in the event of non-respect of this instruction. The Toulousain even remembers that “Sometimes the window was opened with the air conditioning”. According to him, if no one is in charge of checking that the lights and screens are turned off, “it does not work”.
Certain gestures of energy sobriety are however easy to put in place, and do not only concern offices. Dominique*, in his sixties, is a bus driver for a public transport company. He regrets that his colleagues leave the engine on during waiting periods. According to him, the company should raise awareness and force drivers to turn off their engines as soon as the wait exceeds two or three minutes. “It annoys me, because this is exactly the kind of behavior that can be avoided.”
Switching off motors, lights or computers at night, limiting the temperature of air conditioning or heating does not require colossal investments. These simple and inexpensive actions are not yet widely adopted. “As in any change project, there is a subject of awareness. Is the company aware of the stakes for the environment and the cost that this represents?” asks Guillaume Crézé, responsible for mobilizing companies at the Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe). “It’s kind of unthought, as if there were many other problems and that one was really the last on the list”adds Isabelle.
“It’s not a priority at all, the ecological question is never addressed within the company.”
Several employees assure franceinfo that they have questioned their hierarchy, in vain. “Some leaders do not know how to raise awareness and mobilize their employees, or do not have the human resources to devote to it”, advances Guillaume Crézé to try to explain this immobility.
If the ecological argument is not enough, some employees hope that the increase in energy prices will encourage their company to change. “If air conditioning starts to cost them too much, maybe things will change” anticipates Nicholas. “With lower energy costs, some companies had gotten used to being less careful about their consumption”contextualizes Guillaume Crézé. “The fear of having a gas or electricity cut allows another awareness”says the expert.
If all companies get involved, will these actions be enough? “These actions are important in terms of financial and energy savings, image and consistency, emphasizes Guillaume Crézé. But they will not be sufficient if we want to achieve the objective of sobriety, which requires longer-term projects.
* The first names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.