March 2021

By Etienne Bodard

With the observable consequences of climate change ever more apparent, countries on both sides of the Atlantic are moving to reduce their carbon emissions and make their economies more sustainable, in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals. However, the reforms passed to meet those targets have in some instances caused unrest. In France, the yellow jacket movement was a response to a fuel tax increase meant to incentivize a shift to less polluting vehicles. The scale of the protests prompted Macron and his team to re-assess their strategy and make French citizens stakeholders in the government’s climate reforms.

In the summer of 2019, French authorities chose 150 citizens at random to form a “Convention for Climate.” After listening to various experts on five areas – food, housing, production, transportation, and consumption – this convention was to produce recommendations to reduce France’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. In June 2020, the convention’s deliberations resulted in 149 recommendations that ranged from regulating advertising, to creating a new “ecocide” crime, to amending the French Constitution to include the fight against climate change. In response, Emmanuel Macron personally committed to holding a referendum or a vote in Parliament on all but three of the convention’s recommendations. In particular, he declined to create a new four percent tax on dividend payments.

As a result of this commitment, the French government drafted the “Climate and Resilience” bill, which it touted as a faithful rendition of the convention’s recommendations. However, the bill was the product of compromise. Indeed, the economic fallout of the ongoing COVID crisis has significantly constrained French authorities’ margins of maneuver. France’s €100 billion stimulus package, accompanied by the European Union’s financial support, has had to balance competing priorities. While keen to respect the citizen convention’s will as well as its own climate-related ambitions, the government is also trying to secure some economic growth despite the pandemic.

As a result of this delicate balancing act, the government considers that the bill implements almost all of the convention’s recommendations. But the convention’s participants and several NGOs find the new French climate bill watered down and deeply unsatisfactory. In February 2021, the final gathering of the citizens’ convention expressed its disappointment with the bill by grading the government’s rendition of their recommendations at 3,3 out of ten. That same month, in a historic decision unrelated to the bill, a Paris administrative tribunal, seized by several NGOs supported by more than 2 millions citizens, ruled that the French state had failed to uphold earlier climate commitments.

Experts are now divided. On the one hand, two official consultative bodies have warned the government that the bill was insufficient to meet France’s carbon emissions commitments and that the bill pushed the implementation of too many of its key measures’ too far into the future. On the other hand, the French ministry for the ecological transition counters these critics by pointing to the Boston Consulting Group study it requested that finds that the bill will allow the country to meet its 2030 objectives “should its provisions be fully implemented.”

On March 8, French parliamentarians have started examining thousands of amendments to the government’s text. With the 2022 French presidential elections drawing closer, this bill will most likely be the last significant reform of Macron’s term. His party will want to reassure and recapture voters who have looked to the Green party at the last local elections. In the opposition, conservatives will seek to use the debate to advocate for their idea of “common sense” climate reforms based on incentives rather than sanctions. Meanwhile, the French far-right intends to use the bill to promote its vision of “localism” – as opposed to globalism and globalization – and to propose its own referendum on the environment.

The challenges Macron and his team have faced are by no means unique to France, or to Europe for that matter. With developed economies battered by the COVID pandemic, governments around the world are struggling to balance economic growth with sustainability. But, encouragingly, the French experience shows that citizens will gladly become stakeholders if given the chance. In addition, a common challenge can give rise to a common response. In this respect, the Biden administration’s decision to return to the Paris Agreement is a unique opportunity for countries on both sides of the Atlantic to join forces and resolutely push back against climate change – the upcoming EU Climate law is expected to set up an even more ambitious target of an at least 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The joint statement that followed special envoy for climate John Kerry’s visit to the European and French institutions last week is an excellent illustration of this renewed transatlantic impetus.

Next step: the US-hosted Leaders’ Climate Summit on April 22, 2021 where President Biden is expected to announce the new US climate targets.