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French protests show a green world must be fair too

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 December 2018 20:58 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The climate movement must talk to other groups that will be affected by the policies it advocates, experts say

France's "yellow vest" protests - which were sparked by a planned fuel tax hike and have led to violence on the streets of Paris and beyond - could hardly have come at a worse time for President Emmanuel Macron’s green credentials.

The political crisis erupting in France has cast a shadow over the U.N. climate change talks now underway in Poland's main coal-mining region, just three years after governments negotiated a landmark agreement to tackle global warming in Paris.

France, for instance, decided not to send its prime minister to the negotiations as planned, as it needs its top politicians back home to de-escalate the situation.

But climate experts in Katowice and beyond said they do not believe the tensions will force the government to row back on its overall commitment to climate action. It will, however, likely need to do things differently.

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation, said the protests should be interpreted as a warning that the transition to a cleaner, greener economy "cannot be top-down". She described them as a "wake-up call for social justice".

Poorer households will need more help to soften the blow of higher fuel prices, so that taxes on carbon-heavy ways of living are not "regressive", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The time has come for the climate movement to "open the door" and talk to other groups that will be affected by the policies it advocates.

"We have to find the solutions together," said Tubiana, who was France's special envoy for the Paris climate talks and played a key role in securing the agreement.

On Wednesday, France abandoned the planned increase in fuel taxes in its 2019 budget - a policy Macron had defended as critical to combating climate change - in response to the widespread opposition to any additional squeeze on household budgets.

Paris is also mulling changes to other unpopular taxes unrelated to the green agenda, and has also said it will delay raising the lowest prices at which retailers can sell food, to which farmers’ groups responded angrily.

Lucile Dufour of climate campaign group CAN France said the "yellow vest" protests may have been triggered by diesel price hikes, but had expanded amid a broad context of "social inequalities rising".

Some taking part in the demonstrations say they are not against climate action, but want a low-carbon transition to be built around consensus, with social measures to help ordinary people cope, she noted.

The government made a mistake by not cushioning the short-term impact of rising fuel prices or supporting families to reduce their energy consumption, she added.

Some experts have said more incentives should be offered for people to switch from polluting diesel cars - popular in France - to cleaner electric vehicles.

"This is definitely not against the energy transition, but about having both an ambitious and a just transition," Dufour told journalists in Katowice.


The phrase "just transition" - which is included in the Paris Agreement - has been much discussed in Poland this week, but mainly in the context of compensation, retraining and new jobs for workers in dirty industries like coal that will need to be phased out if countries are to cut their emissions to zero.

However, Fiji's leader said the term should also apply to vulnerable communities in poorer nations that are being hit hard by more extreme weather and rising seas.

And Tubiana said the social unrest in France showed ordinary households in any country - rich or poor - need to perceive the shift to a greener world as a fair one that is not happening at their expense.

Pierre Cannet, head of climate and energy with WWF France, said a process that was not developed in an inclusive manner was "destined to fail".

The French government had "put the cart before the horse by not addressing the social measures necessary for a just transition", he added in emailed comments.

But he and other experts insisted France has no alternative to bringing in carbon taxes if it hopes to reduce its emissions on the scale needed to keep rising temperatures in check.

"To focus solely on the social costs of acting on climate change is a fallacy. At the end of the day the reason we need to take action is because the social and economic costs of climate impacts are far worse," said Camilla Born, senior policy adviser at climate-change think tank E3G.

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