Submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Stephanie Tapolsy
France has an extensive set of climate targets and policies – on the national and EU levels – to reduce their emissions and combat climate change. France has committed, through legally binding laws, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. A member of the European Union and signatory to the Paris Agreements, France has been actively working on implementing the necessary policies and securing the necessary funding to achieve these targets.
The result has been an extensive network of policies targeting all sectors of the economy as seen below in Figure 1, an overview of the European Green Deal. It is estimated that France spent 1% of total French GDP on environmental protection in 2019. Furthermore, France was in 2019 the first country to create a green budget benchmark through which to evaluate their yearly national budget and its impact on the environment. In late 2020 France mapped their 2021 budget across brown and green expenses to better understand and then align government expenses with their climate targets.
Figure 1: Structure of the European Green Deal
The importance of achieving these climate targets is well understood by the government and politicians. The Ministère de la Transition écologique is the department within the French government charged with implementing the policies regarding energy transition, climate, sustainable development, and biodiversity. French politicians, including President Macron, who has been president since 2017, have made the climate crisis a domestic and foreign political focus. Furthermore, the French government is held accountable to achieving their legally binding climate targets by the French courts as seen by the early 2021 ruling that found the French government guilty of climate inaction, or not doing enough to lower their emissions and combat climate change.
France, on the surface, therefore, looks to be well poised to achieve their climate targets. The existent of a plan, a network of policies to achieve said plan, the technical ability and dedicated to implement it, political backing and accountability to the court system will all be essential to France’s success. However, as seen by their recent climate inaction guilty verdict, France still faces many challenges to successfully executing their climate plans. While many challenges exist, a specific and major issue that France faces in their ecological transition is the lack of trust in the government from the French citizens. This is closely linked to the distributional effects of climate policy, or the unequal impact of a climate policy on households from different socio-economic levels.
This is best understood by the gilets jaunes protests that swept through France in late 2018. The protests began in response to planned tax increases on fuel, which were a central part of President Macron’s policy to combat French emissions. With fuel taxes largely understood to be a regressive tax – or a tax that places a larger burden on poorer households than wealthier ones – the financial impact of this tax would not be equally felt. In conjunction with other occurrences that stoked resentments among blue-collar workers against urban ‘elite,’ hundreds of thousands went to the streets to protest. After weeks of large-scale unrest, the government suspended the planned fuel tax increases. While a victory for the gilet jaunes, the suspension of the increased fuel taxes negatively impacted the government’s ability to lower emissions. The gilets jaunes protests emphasize the fact that if citizens are unhappy with environmental policies and do not trust that the government has their best interests in mind, these policies could end up not being enacted due to pushback. The French government must therefore ensure that all their environmental policies are not regressive so that these measures will be accepted by the public and are therefore able to be implemented and their impact felt.
However, this issue runs deeper than simply showing that a certain environmental policy will not be regressive. A Paris School of Economics 2020 study found that while French respondents overwhelmingly rejected putting a tax on carbon, 70% were still against the idea even when cash dividends were provided to mitigate any negative budgets impacts. These cash dividends were implemented to ensure that the policy would not be regressive and mitigate any distributional effects. Three main beliefs about the policy were identified as responsible for whether it would be supported by an individual: if it is in one’s self-interest if the environmental effectiveness is clear and if it is progressive. All three of these were strongly negatively biased for individuals against the carbon tax. Problematically, even when individuals were targeted with accurate information ensuring a positive impact on all three beliefs, only 12% of people were convinced to support the policy. Distrust in the government and individuals rejecting information to confirm their membership with groups who were against the policy were identified as the two main reasons these biased beliefs could not be corrected with accurate information. Considering these conclusions, ensuring and implementing policies and strategies that are not regressive is essential, but not enough, to ensure public support of these policies. Correcting these biased beliefs and rebuilding trust in the government and environmental policies is a major challenge France faces in ensuring collective support for the ecological transition.
Understanding the trust challenges faced by the French government in implementing fair and impactful environmental policies, identifying, and implementing solutions to overcome this is important. Maintaining group membership and distrust in the government were the two obstacles to correcting biased beliefs of those against the carbon tax as identified by The Paris School of Economics study. Furthermore, the research found that if the biased beliefs could be corrected, the approval rate for the carbon tax with a cash dividend program could reach 90%. The French government should therefore work on addressing these two obstacles. As a suggestion, two policy initiatives could be utilized in synergy to try and overcome these obstacles. First, altering the understanding of how one’s socio-economic or regional group view the policy to a supportive view could provide individuals the impetus to no longer reject accurate information to maintain group membership. To achieve this, the government can send households accurate information correcting all three beliefs, as done in the study, in addition to including a statistic that a high percentage of other citizens or locals are in support of this policy. This should be a valid statistic and can be targeted to certain groups or regions based on the policy in question. A similar experiment, highlighting that a high percentage of fellow citizens had already paid their taxes in full, was found to be effective in decreasing tax evasion by placing tax-evading behavior in the out-group. Second, rebuilding trust in the government can also lead to individuals no longer rejecting accurate information aimed at correcting their biased beliefs. Running a continuous Op-Ed campaign across France about the trustworthiness of politicians is likely to increase trust in the government based on 2020 research on increasing citizen’s trust in government. Together, these could ensure higher levels of approval and acceptance for the government and their environmental policies on local and national levels.
Minister Delegate for relations with parliament and citizen participation
Contact for building trust in government
Hôtel de Clermont,
69 rue de Varenne,
01 42 75 80 00
Minster for the ecological transition
Contact for ensuring environmental policies are not regressive
Hôtel de Roquelaure,
246 bd Saint-Germain,
01 40 81 21 22