Who Cares about France’s Energy Transition?

French president Emmanuel Macron is facing stiff opposition from a group of protestors opposed to gasoline and diesel fuel tax increases. The demonstrations began to receive international attention when they turned violent, with two deaths and scores of injuries among protestors and police. The government views these taxes as part of a broader strategy to transition France’s energy system away from fossil fuels to combat climate change that includes investing $15 billion by 2022 to deploy rail networks, carpooling, electric cars, and unmanned shuttles.

Protestors reject the idea that they should bear higher fuel costs to fund this transition. One protestor quoted by NPR news said, “We are sick of the government pitting the French people worried about the end of the world with people like us who are just worried about the end of the month. We are living on debt and credit. We can’t make ends meet and the end of the month comes twelve times a year.” French government officials have also noted that this type of opposition is fueled by a much bigger problem of economic inequality in France that has gone unaddressed for too long. In turn, the government has announced its intent to couple the tax plan with a number of policies to ease the burden for low-income households to make energy efficient or energy fuel switching investments.

So, why should anyone care about this? France is an important country, of course, but its share of global energy consumption is not large at 1.6 percent, nor is its share of global emissions at 0.9 percent. Petroleum counts for around 30 percent of France’s total energy consumption, and the country already has some of the highest fuel costs in the world. The country is also highly dependent on nuclear power for electricity. Even on the nuclear front, France is transitioning away from its traditional dependence on nuclear power in favor of higher levels of efficiency and renewable energy.

Well, there are several reasons to care. First, France is a developed economy seeking to take a leadership role to reduce emissions within its own economy. This is difficult work. Very few countries have made durable strides on this front, and nearly no country has made the deep emissions cuts that most climate experts argue are needed to achieve, although many have experienced promising periods of transition. The more climate policies and actions are employed by countries around the world, the more we will learn about what works, what doesn’t, and how to do better. This, by the way, is the most important factor missing in the U.S. debate about climate change and the energy transition; proponents of action act like we know precisely what we’re doing and that there won’t be any costs, opponents of action act like we don’t know anything about what needs to be done and the costs are astronomical.

The truth is that we have some informed strategies and approaches that are well worth trying. They will have near-term costs, but they will also have longer-term benefits. And, oh, by the way, doing nothing comes at a huge cost, which we are even less prepared to face. France is trying to figure out how to get this right, and that counts for a lot. On Tuesday, President Macron announced his intent to create a mechanism for adjusting fuel tax increases when they correspond with a rise in global oil prices. He said the government would move more slowly to phase out and reduce the share of nuclear power France’s energy mix, delaying the implementation of a cap on nuclear power’s share of electricity at 50 percent to 2035 instead of 2025. (Note that nuclear power is emissions free, so this decision is controversial for some in the climate community.) Finally, he called for a national consultation period of three months to discuss the nation’s plans for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The second reason to care about France’s energy transition is that Emmanuel Macron is the de facto defender of multilateralism and with it, global action to address climate change. In his speech on Tuesday, he, once again, reminded French citizens of our shared responsibility to “today and tomorrow.” These statements are not new or novel for the French president—he speaks about climate change quite often at major international and domestic gatherings like earlier this year at the UN General Assembly and even in front of the U.S. Congress. He inaugurated and hosted a new gathering, the One Planet Summit, now in its second year, to address the ecological, social, and economic impacts of climate change and to recognize that “the climate challenge is a shared responsibility that required the mobilization of and cooperation between everyone: governments, the public and private sectors, and civil society.”

However, there is no precise formulation for incentivizing global action on climate change. Even after the achievements reached in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, a system of creating incentives to take ambitious and timely action has not emerged. This fact can lead to despair or radicalization, especially in the face of all the other disorienting changes to society taking place in our contemporary world. That is precisely why the clarity of purpose of dogged determination of global leaders to remind us of our collective challenge and responsibility to future generations is so critical at this particular time. That kind of global leadership can only be meaningful when it is backed by concrete domestic action.

Third and perhaps most importantly, the French government is faced with the starkest and challenging portion of the global climate challenge: how to achieve an energy transition in a society seized by economic and social inequality. In his speech addressed to the country’s “yellow-vest” protestors, Macron declared that, “We must hear people’s anger and alarm, but we must not do so by renouncing our responsibilities for today and tomorrow because there is also an environmental alarm, I would go further to say it is the social and territorial inequalities that many of our fellow citizens are rightly denouncing today that are often coupled with environmental inequality.” This is a challenge faced by both developed and developing economies—even though the scale and severity of both absolute and relative measures of economic well-being are vastly different in each case. The reality of the populist era in which we live is that many parts of society have lost faith in government to do the right thing for them—to look out for the interests of people rather capital or wealth.

This lack of trust is taking place as technological and social forces are also changing the way live and relate to one another, which is a terribly difficult environment in which to embark on an energy transition. And yet, as countless reports and analysis have shown, including the U.S. National Climate Assessment released last week and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the most vulnerable and economically distressed populations will be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change. Without measures to reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change that we know of today and expect for the future, this socioeconomic divide and political atmosphere of distrust will only intensify. Countries that choose not to address these challenges head-on are only postponing and quite likely hampering their ability to take them on in the future. This scuffle over gasoline and diesel tax rate increases may seem remote and parochial, but it’s a fight that represents a great many things we will all have to confront sooner or later.

Sarah Ladislaw is senior vice president and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program