Paris burns, but not over climate change

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation after four weeks of escalating protests sparked initially by a proposed tax increase set to come into effect in January of 2019.

Anti carbon pricing pundits have been quick to point to Paris as a reason why carbon taxes do not work. President Donald Trump took it so far as to say this is a direct consequence of and reason why the Paris Agreement “does not work”.  This assessment couldn’t be more wrong. The protests in Paris and the backlash is not against environmental policy, but rather a reaction to yet another tax hike that would hurt the working class, and that came on top of several other regressive economic policies. The protests speak more to a general contempt for the state of France’s government than a rebuke of climate policy.

There is much to learn from the French experience about how we go about designing and implementing comprehensive climate policy. One of the biggest takeaways being that there needs to be high levels of accountability, transparency, and inclusive discourse.

The Political Costs of Climate Legislation?

Opponents of market based solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions have also used the events in France as a condemnation of such policies and an example as to why they are bound to fail here in the U.S., too. However, these arguments are wildly misleading and they ignore the deeper political reality and intersection of tensions across France.

For starters, the French gas tax bill is very different from carbon fee and dividend legislation, such as the one we have advocated for here in the state of Massachusetts. Macron’s bill was set to be an across the board increase in the gasoline tax, with all revenue going to French government coffers instead of being rebated back to the people, and only 25 percent of revenue designated for climate change mitigation and climate initiatives.

This gas tax increase was also set to come on top of a different tax increase in France enacted in early 2018. To justify this latest increase in the gas tax, Macron cited France’s need to meet its commitments under the Paris climate treaty. It’s for this reason that a number of media reports have called the proposal a ‘carbon tax,’ despite it more accurately being a gasoline tax.

Moreover, the very fact that protests have continued despite the fact that this tax is no longer going into effect, show a much deeper and wider sentiment of discontent for the government that goes far beyond a gasoline tax. For this reason, it is misleading to conclude that a carbon pricing scheme would send any who try it directly into the chaos seen in Paris over the past few weeks.

The situation in France needs to be understood within its context and primarily as a reaction to the government and larger issues with tax policies, not a reaction to climate action.  Protesters in France are not against climate action, and in fact polls have shown that people in France are very concerned about the environment and support stronger commitments to climate action. “This is not the yellow vests against climate-change policies. It’s the yellow vests against the cost of living, the way politics are done, and how decision makers are doing policy,” says Pierre Cannet, the head of climate and energy at the French offices of the WWF, via the Atlantic.

What we can learn from this

While it has certainly been an unfortunate moment for France and its leaders, not to mention for those who have been injured or lost their lives protesting, there are some things that we can learn from this whole thing. First, we should not take the French experience to mean that comprehensive climate policy will be met with violent protest – this is certainly not the case.

Nonetheless, there are certain elements that are needed in order to ensure the viability of comprehensive climate legislation:

Leadership is critical. Any hope at passing successful and comprehensive policy needs to have strong leadership, one that people can get behind. For climate policy to be successful, it also needs to have clear goals set and a commitment to achieve them. When policies are too broad or vague about the end goals, they are less likely to

There needs to be accountability and public input into the process. This might be the most important takeaway from what’s happened in France: those eager to implement farsighted climate policy need to explain those changes well and arrive at them in an inclusive manner.

Where Macron failed was in enacting a policy from the top down without public discourse or involvement of key stakeholders in the process. There also were no measures to ensure equitable distribution of the impacts of such a policy. There are ways to enact carbon fee legislation that ensures those who would be disproportionately burdened don’t need to be. In fact, when designed thoughtfully and with a justice framework, carbon pricing bills can protect low income households and those who would otherwise be negatively impacted.

For instance, one of the bills in the state of Massachusetts includes a rebate component, which ensures most individuals with modest income would actually come out either neutral or ahead after accounting for increased fuel costs.