Median monthly take-home pay in France is €1,700, and the €80 it can cost to fill up your tank can sting—especially if you live in a rural area where you’re reliant on a car. The government’s messaging, if anything, worsened the situation: Macron, who is seen as imperious and out of touch, has suggested that people in car-dependent areas simply carpool.
The reaction in France offers a case study of the perils of efforts to combat climate change. Historically, economists have pushed for governments to use tax policy, the idea being that only a tax can “internalize” the costs of climate change: By charging polluters for every ton of heat-trapping gas they emit into the atmosphere, a carbon tax lets the market account for climate change by itself. “Many experts agree that taxing carbon to regulate emissions is the most economically efficient approach,” Resources for the Future, a nonprofit climate think tank based in Washington, says on its website.
But for all its technocratic elegance, taxing carbon has proved a hard political sell. France is not the only country that has struggled to turn climate enthusiasm into tax policy. Australia, Canada, and the United States have all hit similar problems.
Last year, Malcolm Turnbull, then the prime minister of Australia, unveiled a bill that aimed to reform his country’s energy system. The bill required some small cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions—nothing major, but enough to meet Australia’s promises under the Paris Agreement.
But some members of Turnbull’s party reject climate science—and that right-wing faction balked at the cuts. By August, he announced he would not put the bill up for a vote. A week later, he was out of office. The new prime minister says he does not plan to commit the emissions cuts to law. That wasn’t even the first time that Australia rejected a climate policy. In 2011, a Labor government adopted a carbon tax, and it took effect the following year, successfully cutting emissions but leading to higher energy costs. In 2014, a right-wing government repealed the tax, though prices have continued to climb.
Canada has also run into snags. In 2015, Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister after campaigning to establish a national carbon levy. That tax is scheduled to go into effect next year, though provinces are free to use a different policy if it will achieve similar emissions reductions.
But it’s unclear whether that effort will survive into 2020. Canada’s Conservative Party has dubbed the policy a “tax on everything” and promised to make it a central issue in next year’s elections. Doug Ford, the brother of the infamous late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, was elected premier of the province of Ontario partly thanks to his outspoken hatred for any climate policy. Last week, he blamed it for General Motors’ recent decision to close a major factory in the province. (This is unlikely: GM is also shuttering two factories in the United States, which does not have a carbon tax.)