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In Order To Be Green, An Economy Must Be Fair First

How the so-called "Yellow Vest" protests in France make it clear that green policies also must address equality

Yellow Vest protests in France have been prompted by a sense of social inequality, not a rejection of a green economy. Photo credit: vfutscher / CC BY-NC / Flickr

This post originally appeared at Ensia.

The gilets jaunes protests in France are a visible—and violent—symbol of a general malaise that has spread to many Western democracies: a gulf of understanding between governing elites and disaffected voters. Many outside of France were quick to characterize this organic street movement as fundamentally anti-environmental, a popular rejection of French President Emmanuel Macron’s climate and green energy policies.

It’s true that two of the triggers that sparked the initial protests back in November 2018 were a proposed increase in the fuel tax and a new lower speed limit on motorways—both presented by the Macron government as necessary measures for France’s ecological transition.

A narrative quickly took hold in the press that painted participants as reactionary rural bumpkins addicted to fossil fuels and fast driving. But, as the protests enter their 29th week, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of public anger—a glib and patronizing oversimplification. In reality, the gilets jaunes protesters are a powerful symbol of why social justice must always be at the heart of environmental justice. 

Yellow and green: closer than they seem 

At its core, the gilets jaunes (or “yellow vests,” named for the fluorescent vests many of the protesters wear) movement is not a rejection of green policies per se, but a rejection of economic inequality, between rich and poor, urban and rural, globalized cities and marginalized regions. Gilets jaunes protesters are deeply engaged with climate change and environmental protection, but ask the question—forcefully, repeatedly, and entirely reasonably: Since it is the high-carbon lifestyles of the rich that are creating the problem, why should the costs of climate action fall mostly on the poor?

Just look at a list of gilets jaunes demands drawn up in November, which called for big hikes in taxes on aviation and maritime fuel, as well as mandatory building insulation, to tackle climate change. Priscillia Ludosky, the creator of the fuel tax petition that kickstarted the gilets jaunes protests, has joined green campaigners to call for higher penalties for industrial pollution and government support for organic produce.

National opinion surveys have found consistent and strong concern over climate change among the low-paid sectors that make up the bulk of the movement. And gilets jaunes were out in force earlier this year as part of Paris’ largest ever climate march, part of a new global wave of green protests.

Indeed, what the gilets jaunes protestors show is that green policies must also address equality—or they will be rejected. And they’re not the only movement to do so. The success of “Green New Deal” movements around the world has shown that combining ambitious green policies with progressive social reform is popular with voters. In Spain, a Green New Deal manifesto recently propelled the Socialist Party to re-election, increasing its vote even in coal country. Ireland has launched a series of citizen assemblies to allow ordinary voters to make formal recommendations on climate and carbon policy, with great success. The rapid growth of renewable energy in countries like Germany and the Netherlands has been driven in large part by community ownership, ensuring that citizens have a real stake in their local wind turbines and solar farms. And pioneering “Working For” schemes in South Africa have been jointly tackling poverty, unemployment and environmental decay for over twenty years.

Green must be fair 

For the vast majority of people, climate change is a problem that feels vague and distant compared to the realities of living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make rent, feeding their family, or finding  affordable healthcare. As the former French Environment Minister Nicholas Hulot warned, if governments force voters to choose between “the end of the world” and “the end of the month,” there can only be one winner. At the Green Economy Coalition, the idea that green must always be fair has been a central plank of our work since our inception.

It’s clear that the gilets jaunes are not reflexively anti-green. Their opposition to the fuel tax was driven, at least in part, by how regressive it is. A flat fuel tax hurts struggling middle and lower classes in rural areas, while the benefits of lower air pollution would mainly be felt by city-dwelling elites. The majority of gilets jaunes protesters come from a world of insecure employment, rural poverty, and increasing inequality. It’s not hard to see why the fuel tax became the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the same time, as Jeremy Harding writes in the London Review of Books, there is a powerful feeling of disgust among the largely working-class gilets jaunes at the hypocrisy and immorality of excessive wealth. “[T]he humiliation felt by underpaid people … when they hear about disproportionately high incomes is not about to disappear. Excess at the top is felt as a slight. … [T]here is no code that protects the low-paid against the endless taunting to which they’re subjected by news of lunatic salaries and bankers’ bonuses. They feel outcast.” 

The people have spoken. Who will listen?

Around the world, large majorities of citizens are concerned about climate change and want to see action taken by their governments. But they want that action to benefit everyone, not just elites, and they want the costs of that action to fall equitably on the shoulders of those most responsible. 

Indeed, the gilets jaunes protests have continued long after Macron abandoned the planned fuel price hike back in December 2018. Social and economic justice remain core issues, with calls for better care for the elderly, stronger rent controls, an increased minimum wage and state pension, and a maximum salary cap of €15,000 per month—well above the total annual minimum wage earned by many in the movement.

Another key gilets jaunes demand is for a “Référendum d’initiative citoyenne” (RIC)—a mechanism by which laws can be proposed by the public for consideration in the National Assembly. In response, Macron launched a grand “national conversation,” a months-long open-source deliberative democracy platform which allowed citizens to organize local meetings to raise issues and discuss whatever they like, with their grievances recorded and relayed to the government.

Although the gilets jaunes responded with some suspicion, the national conversation was remarkably successful, with well over 10,000 meetings organized and nearly 2 million responses to a detailed national questionnaire on the future of the country. And on May 20th the government launched the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate, an assembly of 150 randomly selected citizens charged with overhauling France’s climate and environmental policies.

Many have dismissed this attempt at deliberative democracy as a mere smokescreen from Macron, whose approval ratings remain dire. But it has given a platform and a voice to citizens who too often feel cut off from their government. Unsurprisingly, social and economic justice have emerged as consistent themes, with broad secondary support for carbon taxes and green economy also apparent.

It remains to be seen how responsive the Macron government will be to the findings of this new national debate. But as the protests on the Champs-Élysées—and other movements elsewhere — become increasingly impossible to ignore, one thing is clear: a green economy must be a fair economy first.

-Ben Martin is the marketing and communications lead at the Green Economy Coalition. Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia or Green Building Advisor. We present ​them to further discussion around important topics. ​We encourage you to respond with a comment. In addition, you might consider​ ​submitting a commentary of your own. 

21 Comments

  1. Russell Miller | | #1

    Politics on here too now?

    1. Jaccen | | #3

      There have always been articles that also discuss politics.

      July 21, 2011
      https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/the-politics-of-light-bulbs

      One can chalk some of these articles, broadly, under a couple of the categories the "About Us" covers:

      "green business strategies"
      -selling "green" products will, eventually, discuss the markets whom those items will be sold to. This article addresses the fact that, for the most part, it is easier for people with more disposable income to purchase "green" technology. Granted, it is easier for people with more income to purchase..........anything.

      A conversation, not a lecture:
      "GreenBuildingAdvisor.com is a suite of online information resources and management tools at its core, but its greatest value comes from the GreenBuildingAdvisor.com community sharing experiences, questions, techniques, agreement and disagreement, successes and failures, and the wisdom gained from all these."

      Some will limit that to just technical discussion. Others will argue it is rather open ended.

      If articles that also discuss political topics are "not your jam," you have a few options:
      1. Don't read them.
      2. Since economics was brought up, then you can vote with your most important vote--your dollar. Not reading the article diminishes advertising return. Or cancel your subscription.

      For the record, I would not do the 2nd one. Glancing at the "free market" in regards to sound building science at a fair price that posts regularly, I believe GBA has positioned itself quite well. I would be interested in supplemental alternatives, but all the other ones I have come across:
      -post infrequently
      -cost at least twice to ten times as much
      -have a greater focus on general construction
      -are more limited in scope
      -have little to no interaction from the authors to the reading audience

      While not a solely technical article, I enjoyed it. However, I often read articles that I do not fully agree with. I do not believe in immersing myself in "an echo chamber." Cooperation with those we disagree with cannot happen if we do not know what "the others" are even suggesting/saying.

      To each their own.

      1. Russell Miller | | #6

        I guess i just feel, in my own opinion, theres a place and this ain't the place! Perhaps im wrong. If so it will surely not be the first time.

        1. Malcolm Taylor | | #7

          Russell,

          I tend to agree, not because I don't sympathize with a lot of the views articulated in these sorts of blogs, but because it is potentially divisive and distracts from what I think GBA's primary strength is. I wish GBA was called High Performance Building Techniques and Strategies.

  2. John Clark | | #2

    Mr. Martin and the "yellow vests" should spend some time reading Frederic Bastiat.

  3. User avater
    Jon R | | #4

    Unfortunately, politics does have a big effect on green building.

    > Since it is the high-carbon lifestyles of the rich that are creating the problem
    I'm not convinced that this is true. But I agree with "the rich are better able to afford environmental reforms".

    There is the US approach - subsidize fuel prices causing people to drive over-sized vehicles and pollute much more than necessary. It does increase voter satisfaction. On the other hand, the US has been better about restricting diesel for passenger cars (it should go away entirely).

    There is more to green policy than logic - people have to be sold on it. Slow change is easier to accept.

    1. John Clark | | #5

      Depends on how you define "subsidy".

      Gas and diesel are subjected to sales/use tax. Roughly 33% of the retail cost of gas/diesel is in the form of a tax. The US pays low prices for a variety of economic and foreign policy reasons. (ie. American Hegemony). For example oil is primarily traded in USD, and we're able to export our inflation because of the high demand for US Govt debt denominated in USD. Another is generally low fuel taxes. In France for example taxes make up approx 60 percent of the cost of fuel.

      And the French wonder why their economy has been in the stagnant for the better part of a decade.

      1. Jaccen | | #8

        Yes, but fuel almost across the board is more expensive in Europe.

        https://www.fuelseurope.eu/knowledge/refining-in-europe/economics-of-refining/fuel-price-breakdown/
        https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/are-the-french-hit-especially-hard-by-fuel-taxes-protests
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_tax#Europe

        I, personally, would not call Germany's economy stagnant and it has similar tax levels on petrol.

        The US has a class leading, enviable "rockstar" economy. We all look stagnant compared to you guys ;)

        1. John Clark | | #10

          Yep. Agree, fuel is expensive in Europe.

          Germany is on top with regards to the EU however they're in trouble due to the double whammy of US sanctions/tariffs and the forced transition to EV. There is a real concern about the potential of experiencing thousands of job losses in the transportation sector. WSJ had a good article about it yesterday
          "Rise of Electric Cars Threatens to Drain German Growth"

  4. User avater
    TIM MCCARTHY | | #9

    I wish here in the US we could ramp up fuel tax but at the same time and by roughly the same amount, or more, drop income tax.

    1. John Clark | | #11

      Never gonna happen. Approx 44 percent of Americans pay NO FEDERAL INCOME TAX. What is going to occur is that EV registration taxes are going to increase by a lot because the perception that EV owners are more well off and therefore can carry the burden for maintaining the transportation infrastructure.

      IMO what really needs to happen is that multi-family needs to get on board with EV charging. in the US there are approx 18 million multi-family units with their hundreds of thousands if not millions of parking spaces and less than one percent of those parking spaces can charge an EV.

      1. Erich Riesenberg | | #16

        John, your comment is wrong, but even if it were true, why would it matter if "Approx 44 percent of Americans pay NO FEDERAL INCOME TAX." That is a simple untruth, but even if it were true, why does federal income tax matter and sales tax, property tax, state income tax, city income tax, fuel tax, and all other taxes should all be ignored? What is your point?

        And, of course, nearly every working person pays a host of payroll taxes, as does the employer. These are obviously income taxes. Of course, unearned income does not pay these taxes.

        When I inherit $5 million in stocks, I will pay no tax. Why should someone who makes $30,000 at a fast food joint pay any taxes at all?

        Just curious, John.

    2. User avater
      Jon R | | #12

      I agree with Tim (more fuel taxes are needed in the US). Nothing prevents an individual's income tax from going negative (becoming a credit/refund of fuel taxes) - so it can work fine.

      No doubt that a lack of concern for the environment and future generations can boost an economy. That doesn't mean it's a good idea.

    3. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #13

      >"I wish here in the US we could ramp up fuel tax but at the same time and by roughly the same amount, or more, drop income tax."

      The "fee-bate" revenue-neutral approach is a more attractive tool when it's not trading one tax for another. It's arguably "fairer" if the per-unit-volume fees collected at the pump are returned equally to those who file for it, whether they have a taxable income or not, whether they drive a car or not. Those who drive little or not at all end up in net-positive cash territory, those who drive a lot or fuel guzzling vehicles end up cash negative. Some might view this as too progressive, but so what? No tax tools have surgical precision.

      When tied to income tax it becomes sharply regressive. Those who don't make enough to pay an income tax get their fuel fee payments confiscated, with those funds fattening the wallets of those who DO make enough to pay income taxes.

      1. User avater
        Jon R | | #14

        > and by roughly the same amount

        The key word being "roughly" (or average). If you return exactly the fuel taxes charged to each person, then obviously there is no point in charging them in the first place.

        > tied to income tax it becomes sharply regressive

        See #12 for why it's not.

        1. User avater
          Dana Dorsett | | #15

          >> "tied to income tax it becomes sharply regressive

          See #12 for why it's not."

          It has to be structured that way to avoid it becoming sharply regressive and to assert "..it's not..." presumes it to be so structure. It would be more accurate to state that "...it doesn't need to be if..." rather than simply "...it's not...".

          Running any feebate through the IRS will miss a lot of people too (not that taxes are ever perfect), since there are lower income people buy auto fuel who can't/don't/won't file an income tax return. A guaranteed minimum income distributed in the form of a negative income tax (Nixon style) would guarantee more low/no-income filers, but that's a whole other kettle o' fish. Alaska wouldn't have much trouble administering it on a statewide basis, since they already pay out a share of the state oil income to each resident annually. Federally it could be a heavy lift.

          1. Erich Riesenberg | | #18

            At the same time, the US could implement a coherent tax system for the vast majority who should not even have to file a tax return, but instead would receive a pre filled post card to sign and send in and have the refund directly deposited.

  5. Erich Riesenberg | | #17

    It is curious to watch the exceedingly rich tell the bottom 99.9% that we must do this or that to save the planet, while they defend the use of private planes, or the size of Al Gore's house.

    I do think people are sick of hypocrisy, but most still remain unable to spot it, because of inherent and partisan bias.

    1. User avater
      Jon R | | #19

      Just keep in mind that hypocrisy has nothing to do with the validity of the message.

  6. Tom Wheeler | | #20

    The message is I don't have to suffer consequences that I can't afford, but you do. That validity?

    Taxing something away is moronic. It only hurts those who it hurts most. Get the government out of subsidies for corn, ev, more efficient insulation, high efficiency HVAC, all of it. Quit taking my money to do something that should be done on it's own merit, or not at all because it isn't really better- ethanol in gas. Terrible idea. All the arguments that this is proven science are the same that were stated about the coming ice ages ala the 70's. Or the hole in the ozone layer caused by gases that are heavier than the rest of the air, and yet has some how healed itself even with tons of "ozone killing gases" floating around. Do it for cleaner air quality and comfort, quit selling the hype and hysteria that is deemed so valid.

    1. Patrick Stuart | | #21

      The problem is people in groups don’t value policies on their own merit. Jared Diamond (UCLA professor and Pulitzer Prize winner) discussed this in his book Collapse about how past societies regularly perform acts negatively impacting their own survival. Easter Island, the Anasazi, Mayans, Greenland Vikings, etc. are all examples. Conversely, there are no civilizations today where strictly libertarian views have proven successful.

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