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Learning the Wrong Lessons From France's Yellow Vest Movement

The widespread Yellow Vests protests, which initially involved hundreds of thousands of protestors in November, are wrongly being interpreted as a movement against carbon taxes and climate action, rather than a revolt against social inequities.
January 3, 2019, 5am PST | Irvin Dawid
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The Yellow Vests protests that swept across France beginning in mid-November, initially numbering as many as 280,000 protestors, were "the most widespread and violent protest in France since the 2005 suburban riots, and perhaps even 1968," write Mathilde Bouyé and Yamide Dagnet for the World Resources Institute (WRI).

While the unrest initially erupted as a protest against the latest rise in fuel taxes, which the government has now agreed to [eliminate], some are attributing the riots to a backlash against carbon taxes and climate action. This is a misguided conclusion.

The Yellow Vests’ chief concern is social inequity. Their demands go well beyond the suspension of fuel taxes, and many of them call for more ambitious and fair climate action. The movement is a reminder to governments that in a context of worsening social disparities, climate action cannot advance without ensuring benefits for all.

The clear message from the Yellow Vests' 42 demands is about social justice, not stopping climate action.

Regressive fuel taxes and carbon taxes make for attractive target

Yet, critics have been quick to point the the movement as a sign of the shortcomings of fuel taxes and carbon pricing. In a perspective for CityLab on Dec. 18, Johanna Heyer draws a connection between the French protests and the 43 percent of California voters on Nov. 6, largely those living in inland areas outside the more urbanized coastal metropolitan areas, who supported repealing a 12-cents per gallon gas tax increase that took effect Nov. 1, 2017.

"We are burdening disadvantaged communities with the costs of our transition to a greener society, while excluding them from the benefits," writes Heyer.

Unlike the planned French fuel tax hikes that were designed in part to transition away from fossil fuels, the fuel taxes and registration fees in the California Road Repair and Accountability Act, the target of the unsuccessful Proposition 6 initiative, were meant to address "a $130-billion backlog of repairs to state highways and bridges and local streets" and also fund public transit and active transportation.

In a New York Times op-ed on Dec. 27, Justin Gillisa former New York Times environmental reporter, points to the Yellow Vests and the failure of another ballot measure last November, the Washington state carbon fee initiative, to show that "any proposal to raise energy prices is going to run into a buzz saw of opposition, including from working-class people who already feel like they are being mistreated."

A Missouri ballot measure that would have hiked gas taxes by 10-cents per gallon also was defeated last November – yet the state has the nation's second lowest gas tax. Hiking gas taxes is a political challenge, which explains why 12 states have not raised them in two decades or more, but it's not a reason to not try. 

The right lesson

"The Yellow Vests movement is a reminder of the importance of planning carbon pricing in the context of broader tax reform, in consistency with the principle of fiscal equity, which can involve indirecting revenues to low-income households through social policies or direct transfer," add Bouyé and Dagnet for WRI.

In another WRI blog, Helen Mountford and Molly McGregor explain how "A Carbon Price Can Benefit the Poor While Reducing Emissions."

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Published on Friday, December 7, 2018 in World Resources Institute
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