Wean­ing the world off of fos­sil fu­els

Paris ri­ots over fuel taxes dim hopes for cli­mate fight


The “yel­low vests” in France are wor­ry­ing greens around the world.

The worst ri­ots in Paris in decades were sparked by higher fuel taxes, and French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron re­sponded by scrap­ping them Wed­nes­day. But taxes on fos­sil fu­els are just what in­ter­na­tional cli­mate ne­go­tia­tors, meet­ing in Poland this week, say are des­per­ately needed to help wean the world off of fos­sil fu­els and slow cli­mate change.

“The events of the last few days in Paris have made me re­gard the chal­lenges as even greater than I thought ear­lier,” said Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­men­tal econ­o­mist Lawrence Goul­der, au­thor of the book “Con­fronting the Cli­mate Chal­lenge.”

Economists, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and politi­cians have long said the best way to fight cli­mate change is to put a higher price on the fu­els that are caus­ing it — gaso­line, diesel, coal and nat­u­ral gas. Tax­ing fu­els and elec­tric­ity could help pay for the dam­age they cause, en­cour­age peo­ple to use less, and make it eas­ier for cleaner al­ter­na­tives and fuel-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies to com­pete.

These so-called car­bon taxes are ex­pected to be a ma­jor part of push­ing the world to re­duce car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and try to pre­vent run­away cli­mate change that economists say would be far more ex­pen­sive over the long term than pay­ing more for en­ergy in the short term. But it’s not so easy for peo­ple to think about longterm, global prob­lems when they are strug­gling to get by.

Macron said the higher tax was his way of try­ing to pre­vent the end of the world. But the yel­low vest pro­test­ers turned that around with the slo­gan: “it’s hard to talk about the end of the world while we are talk­ing about the end of the month.”

The re­sis­tance to the fuel tax is a per­sonal blow to Macron, who sees him­self as the guar­an­tor of the 2015 Paris cli­mate ac­cord, its strong­est de­fender on the global stage. He has po­si­tioned him­self as the anti-Trump when it comes to cli­mate is­sues. The French gov­ern­ment qui­etly fears a Trum­pled back­lash against the ac­cord could spread to other ma­jor economies whose com­mit­ment is es­sen­tial to keep­ing the deal to­gether.

The fuel tax was not orig­i­nally Macron’s idea; it dates back to pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions. But he vig­or­ously de­fended it and won the pres­i­dency in part on a prom­ise to fight cli­mate change. So what went wrong? Yale Uni­ver­sity econ­o­mist William Nord­haus, who won this year’s No­bel prize for eco­nomics, said the tax was poorly de­signed and was de­liv­ered by the wrong per­son. “If you want to make en­ergy taxes un­pop­u­lar, step one is to be an un­pop­u­lar leader. Step two is to use gaso­line taxes and call them car­bon taxes. This is hard enough without adding poor de­sign.”


A demon­stra­tor waves the French flag on a burn­ing bar­ri­cade on the Champs-El­y­sees av­enue Nov. 24 dur­ing a demon­stra­tion against the rise of fuel taxes.

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