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Yellow vests for climate justice French protesters’ rejection of an imposed fuel tax wasn’t anti-environment. They just wanted a fairer distribution of the tax burden between super-rich and poor Philippe Descamps | Translated by Charles Goulden

The fact that the protests started in Paris, where the first universal climate agreement was signed in 2015, highlights the scale of the social challenge

Above Stop the pollution: protester at a march for the climate in December 2018 in Lyon

A t the start of the French protests, tens of thousands of yellow vests demonstrated simultaneously with climate protestors around the country. The invasion of public spaces, especially roundabouts, by France’s ‘invisible’ people has led to a rapid increase in political maturity. Everyone has begun to talk about their shared perception that the current system turns humankind into super-predators, with disastrous consequences for the environment and for other humans.

Though there is still just time to avoid climate chaos,1 many feel our humanity is degenerating, that we are ‘being transformed into beasts of production and consumption, into moronic channel surfers’. Those who dread the end of the month financially see clearly that it is absurd how only the few can accumulate so much in a world with limited resources. The fact that the protests started in Paris, where the first universal climate agreement was signed in 2015, highlights the scale of the social challenge, and the contortions the French government has put itself through in publicly championing a cause most of its policies undermine.

President Emmanuel Macron’s team has blamed others, starting with the most vulnerable. Since the 1950s, governments have prioritised road transport, while advertising and industry have presented the car as indispensable. Now drivers are the only ones told they must pay the cost of this model. Everybody would have had to pay France’s proposed fuel tax rise (scrapped after the demonstrations), at a time when the rising costs of rent, commuting and food are having a serious impact on the purchasing power of the least well off, while those best off get tax concessions. Shockingly, increased environmental taxation was meant to help offset exemptions on social security contributions granted to employers, rather than fund energy transition.2 The environment has replaced the EU as a budgetary pretext.

There is no doubt about the need for bold action to save the human ecosystem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPC)’s latest report points out that human activity has caused global warming of around 1ºC since the pre-industrial era. At this rate, the 1.5ºC threshold beyond which the damage will be hard to control will be exceeded between 2030 and 2052.3 Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and we should be taking urgent action to reduce them.

Emissions by the richest 10%

We need to identify those responsible. The US has produced 26.3% of all greenhouse gas emissions since the pre-industrial era, Europe 23.4%, China 11.8% and Russia 7.4%. In 2014, per capita CO₂ emissions were 34,500kg in Qatar, 17,600kg in Luxembourg, 16,400kg in the US, 625kg in Tajikistan, and only 53kg in Chad.4 Each of the 1% of richest citizens of the US, Luxembourg or Saudi Arabia generates 200 tonnes a year, 2,000 times more than a poor Honduran or Rwandan.

The world’s richest 10% produce 45% of emissions.5 If their carbon footprint were measured, and the production re‑ gime that allows them to prosper unchallenged identified, it would be easi­er to plan an environmental transition that would be popular, because the poor pay more for energy and transport. It would still be necessary to escape the ideological straightjacket that prevents ordinary people from taking control of their destiny, its legal expression visible in the free trade agreements and treaties that govern the European Union.

A substantial reduction of inequality and its causes would certainly help humanity face its challenges. Only this could generate the collective will and momentum to escape dependence on fossil fuels and abandon consumption driven by frustration. Deglobalisation would also help – regulating trade according to social and environmental criteria that require the production of goods and services to be compatible with the renewal of ecosystems.

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or any other country tempted to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, would think twice if that meant incurring trade sanctions like those readily imposed in response to far less serious threats than climate change. France would probably export fewer logs to, and import less furniture from, China if the two countries’ wages and environmental standards were comparable, and highly toxic heavy fuel oil for ships was taxed as much as petrol at the pump. Is it right that air travel – the most polluting form of transport, reserved largely for the rich – should have the advantage of being exempt from value added and fuel taxes? Should we still encourage the export of highly processed foods full of sugar, salt, additives and preservatives we now know are harmful, rather than promote the use of locally sourced raw materials and a shift to organic farming? This is not a matter of consumer choice: without govern­ment backing and strict regulation, ordinary people will continue to eat junk food, and organic food will remain a luxury for the elite.

Restraint, energy efficiency and the development of renewables: we have plenty of opportunities to free ourselves from carbon dependence, but there is a lack of investment. The measures adopted by European governments (reductions in tax on corporate profits) and the huge credit facilities the European Central Bank grants to private financial institutions (buying back €2,600bn of bonds in less than four years) show that private actors are not up to the task, preferring to pay their shareholders record dividends (up 23.6% in France and 14.5% in the UK in 2017).6 Yet EU treaties restrict government investment and limit purchasing power by exerting downward pressure on labour costs. Financing the energy transition is at an impasse.

Housing energy renovation

The most enlightening example of the gap between the government’s declared intentions and actual action is housing. Since the Grenelle environmental round table (launched 2007), there has been a consensus on the importance of the energy renovation of housing. Today, we know how to build or renovate buildings to minimise energy consumption, and France launched a national plan in March 2013, but this has made little headway and is inadequately reflected in the housing, development and digital technology law passed last October. Nearly seven million people in France live in thermal sieves, and suffer energy precarity.7 Energy renovation would make homes more comfortable in summer and winter, reduce bills and carbon footprints, and create many jobs. But the cost is too high, the investment takes too long to recoup, and the work is too technically difficult for individual households to take the initiative. Only public or semi-public investors such as housing offices or the Caisse des Dépots state investment bank could mitigate the lack of private initiatives and help individuals and co-owners’ associations.

The main tool of economic policy introduced under President François

Hollande was the tax credit for competitiveness and employment. Macron has transformed this into a permanent cut in social security contributions without requiring businesses to invest the freed-up funds in the real economy or environmental transition, or use them to reduce their own energy or materials costs.

There are many examples of the government deserting the battle for the environment and pulling out of rural areas, making public services harder to access: minor railway lines and local courts closed; cheap long-distance buses (‘Macron buses’) introduced; motorway toll stations handed to private operators; palm oil imports doubled by Total’s La Mède factory. Even faced with the yellow vest uprising and widespread voter disillusionment, Macron has not given ground on what he considers essential, which is preferential treatment for the rich, the supposed investors who have turned out to be predators. The climate crisis makes it vital both to restore the state’s ability to act and to free it from pressure groups by allowing ordinary people to influence collective action at the level best suited to each decision. The wide range of choices to be made and the interconnectedness of the questions to be raised need bolder institutional tools than the large-scale consultations now announced. Involving all of France’s population in prioritising changes could restore vigour to democratic planning, through which ‘freedom, effectiveness and social justice will finally be reconciled and linked.’8

The Paris climate agreement outlines tentative forms of multilateral planning. The COP24 climate summit at Katowice in December adopted a rulebook for their application. This will make it possible to measure accurately how far each country is meeting its voluntary engagements on emissions. But the engagements are inadequate: without bolder action, global warming will exceed 3ºC by the end of the century, which is unacceptable, especially for the most vulnerable countries of the South that did not benefit from development when carbon dominated. A Green Climate Fund aims to make up for this by helping them to adapt and avoid the mistakes of industrialised countries; it is still far from its modest funding target of $100bn a year. France has not achieved national climate justice, and though other countries have copied the yellow vests, global climate justice remains a distant goal ◼

Philippe Descamps is editor in chief of Le Monde diplomatique

1 See ‘Halt climate change now’ special report, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2015 2 As formulated in the economic, social and financial report attached to the French government’s draft finance bill 2019, submitted to the European Commission 3 ‘Global Warming of 1.5ºC ’, IPCC special report Geneva, 2018, www. 4 ‘CAIT Climate Data Explorer 2015’, World Resources Institute, Washington DC, cait. 5 Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, ‘Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris’, Paris School of Economics, 3 November 2015. Oxfam’s estimates are similar: see ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’, Oxford, 2 December 2015 6 Simon Goodley, ‘Investors received record-breaking dividends in 2017, research shows’, The Guardian, London, 17 July 2017 7 ‘Le tableau de bord 2018’ (Agenda 2018), French National Energy Precarity Observatory (ONPE), 2018, 8 Pierre Mendès France, La République moderne: Propositions (The Modern Republic), Gallimard, Paris, 1962

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