Ecological transition must be redirected towards supply and innovation.
The “Yellow Vest” movement shows that Emmanuel Macron’s policy on ecological transition has failed. The fuel tax issue has triggered a digital revolt, a testimony to the divides in French society and its social atomism, and opening up gaps for populism to fill. It crystalizes the political and social malaise born of a new tax hike and authoritarian, technocratic and hyper-concentrated power that is at odds with the people, their elected representatives, and the regions. Emmanuel Macron has fallen into his own trap. The announcement that Nicolas Hulot would be resigning has left him with no credibility on the ecological front. At the same time, the French have become exasperated by a vision of ecology that is statist, Malthusian and punitive. The French are perfectly aware of the urgency of the climate problem, but they quite rightly reject an ineffective and arbitrary policy that has turned the ecology issue into a proliferation of regulations and a fiscal onslaught.
There is nothing wrong with the diagnosis, which underlines the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems and intends to make ecological transition – together with the digital revolution – the driving force behind the modernization of the French model. The economy in the 21st century must be directed at decarbonation, which does not mean either a fall in growth or a drastic reduction in energy consumption. According to economic theory, the carbon tax is the best way of making prices reflect damage done to the environment. But it cannot be the only measure used to effect ecological transition. Above all, the scope of the carbon tax, its rate and the timetable for its implementation must be acceptable to the people. Thus, when Sweden adopted it, it was accompanied by numerous exemptions so as not to harm economic competitiveness, and above all by the suppression of other fuel taxes so as not to cut purchasing power and increase inequality. One of the disadvantages of the carbon tax is that it is a regressive tax that weighs more heavily on the most disadvantaged and those who live in rural areas. The carbon tax in France has taken any of these factors into account. It was introduced by Ségolène Royal in 2014 in the form of an energy-climate contribution at a rate of €30.50 per tonne, and will reach €84 per tonne by 2022. This means over 14 billion euros in extra taxes, added to which there is VAT [sales tax] which is applied to this contribution in addition to the VAT on the selling price of fuel – the prodigious French tax system even taxes sales tax! With the price of a barrel of oil at around 80 dollars, a liter of gasoline will exceed 2 euros by 2020. By the same token, taxes on domestic fuel and natural gas increased by 30% and 40% respectively in 2018.
This tax blow has no economic or ecological sense. By over-taxing basic necessities that have no substitute – 12 million people use their cars every day and have no alternative –, it cuts the purchasing power of the poorest and lowers consumption. Spectacular tax hikes foment the refusal to pay taxes and compromise the understanding of the need for ecological transition. At the same time, soaring energy costs are killing off our industry at a moment when the USA is increasing domestic production by means of unconventional hydrocarbons. The only rationale for raising fuel taxes is budgetary, as proved by the fact that only 19% of the 38 billion euros brought in by this tax in 2019 will be assigned to ecological transition.
The environment is merely a pretext for raising taxes in order to spend more. Fuel taxes primarily finance rising public expenditure, which has increased by 58 billion euros since the election of Emmanuel Macron and his demagogic promise to get rid of the taxe d’habitation [housing tax or Council tax, paid by tenants or house-owners on their place of residence] which will put the burden on property-owners – through the taxe foncière [a property tax not related to one’s place of residence] – to finance local public services. Every day we see how irrational government intervention is becoming: the fiscal onslaught and scheduled eradication of diesel-powered vehicles and oil-fired boilers that were heavily subsidized in the past, and lower taxes on coal – the energy source that causes the most pollution.
Ecological transition means a radical change of direction.
- It must be the subject of a long-term national pact, so that it is accepted by everyone instead of being imposed by political leaders.
- In the meantime, two solutions are open to us: to suspend the scheduled rise in the carbon tax or to get rid of the VAT imposed on it.
- Ecological transition must be redirected towards supply and innovation (catchment and storage of carbon, hydrogen motors…) instead of being limited to banning companies from certain types of production and an avalanche of taxes.
- This supply policy must be implemented throughout Europe, which, today, is dependent on the USA on the digital front and on China for batteries and in the solar and wind turbine sectors.
- Ecological transition must be an integral part of economic policy, which means prioritizing cuts in public expenditure, for this determines the long-term fall in taxes that will make the carbon tax a sustainable political and social policy.
- The ecology issue needs a rethink. It must be thought of in terms of people’s well-being and safety, instead of as a vehicle for new regulations and taxes that only serve the interests of an irresponsible and hard-pressed government.
(Column published in Le Point, 29th November 2018)