Unrest in France has shown how far climate change has forced its way up the the political agenda and neglect can no longer be a policy option for the Irish Government, writes Kyran Fitzgerald
FOR the past four weeks, the streets and roads of France have borne witness to a fast spreading insurrection.
The initial spark was provided by the prospect of another hike in carbon taxes, one that has enraged much of the population residing beyond the affluent urban central districts of the country.
It is hard to get a real sense of what is happening, right now, when even the most experienced of commentators and reporters are scratching their heads and looking on in alarm at the course of events.
People — in the political, media and academic establishments — who thought that their finger was close to the pulse have suddenly discovered that they are rather out of touch.
Social media is certainly playing a part, as messages are disseminated on an instantaneous basis. Leaders of standing have yet to emerge. There are dark suggestions that forces of the extreme right and extreme left are helping to steer events.
President Macron has certainly mishandled matters. His withdrawal of the proposed carbon tax measure appears to have come too late as participants in the so-called “gilets jaunes” or “yellow jacket” protests have begun to dramatically broaden their list of demands.
As the evidence of the damaging impact of climate change caused by rising global emissions of carbon accumulates on an almost daily basis, the idea that measures to combat the growth of such emissions can somehow be abandoned simply does not stack up.
Governments need to act at regional, national and global level, but they must act in such a way as to ensure that it is the wealthy who are the prime targets.
The ‘yellow jackets’ may not be the semi-starving peasants and workers of 1789, but they are clearly people on the margins, each often taking home — after tax — less than €1,500 a month. It is worth noting that the French are among the most heavily taxed people in Europe.
Mr Macron’s move to cut wealth taxes, early on, may have been designed to boost economic activity, but it has firmly established him in the eyes of most of the public as the president for the rich.
The pity of it is that he has also shown a degree of political courage in seeking to tackle some of France’s deep-seated problems. At best, he may now be forced to retreat from the reformist positions he had adopted by an electorate which is as deeply conservative as it is rebellious.
Mr Macron has been in the vanguard of the move towards EU integration. It remains to be seen whether the integrationist cause has now been seriously set back following his apparent political eclipse. It is certainly a cause that lacks support among the ordinary citizens of the union whatever one may think about the project as a whole.
Economists have long pondered over the question of how best to win the voters round to new, or higher, carbon taxes. In Ireland, the issue is a live one given the likelihood that we could face fines for breach of climate targets at EU level.
Researchers from the Grantham Institute — part of the London School of Economics — have sought to address the issue of how to make carbon taxes more acceptable. They conclude that carbon taxes are vital in promoting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
This is because by putting a price on carbon, “heavy emitters are confronted with the environmental cost of their actions.”
So far, just 45 countries across the world have introduced carbon pricing, along with a few US states, but not the Federal Government.
Samuela Bassi of the Institute contends that the EU should be focusing on carbon pricing rather than on subsidies to producers of renewables, which should be able to stand on their two feet at this stage. While the EU may be on target to meet its 2020 objective of a 20% cut in carbon emissions on 1990 levels, the 2030 target of a 40% cut will require more radical action.
So, how to sugar the pill? One approach would be to return the funds raised through carbon taxes from the central exchequer in the form of a uniform lump sum dividend to each taxpayer. This would be socially progressive since the wealthy and well-off tend to be much bigger emitters — as owners of larger houses and large cars and as frequent flyers.
The Government could also ramp up dramatically its investment in refits of dated, energy wasteful, housing, not to mention investment in infrastructure for electric vehicles.
Public transport options need to be backed with exchequer financial support. People, if necessary, can be supported in using social media to tap into these services. New media can also be used much more to gauge peoples’ reactions to those services.
If necessary, funds in the capital plan — currently allocated to motorways or other projects — should be diverted towards investments aimed at permanently curbing carbon emissions.
Of course, prioritising a carbon tax would entail taking on some powerful lobbies such as the motor and airline sectors, not to mention the affluent who are much more inclined to vote on the basis of their pocketbooks.
However, the ‘gilets jaunes’ phenomenon — coming hot on the heels of the Brexit and Trump victories — serves as a reminder that people from the peripheries are now beginning to make their presence felt.
The State needs to start selling much more vigorously the whole idea of energy taxation rather than seeking to kick the whole concept safely into the long grass ahead of the general election which always appears to be knocking on the door, but never quite arrives.
As the Brexit crisis unfolds, the Government here will, in all likelihood, have to come up with special packages aimed at assisting hauliers, sectors and regions that find themselves at the sharp end.
The ‘gilets jaunes’ protest serves as a sharp reminder that neglect is not a policy option, but equally, the climate crisis is likely to force its way up the political priority list before long.