Next year’s meeting of the UNFCCC in Paris promises to put climate change back on the front pages. While serious people will be examining closely the policies of China, India, the USA, and other functioning economies, I’ll be keeping a close watch on what’s happening in France.
Election hysteria will be at fever pitch by December 2015, given that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a mere 18 months away. The political microclimate will be in chaos, abuzz with the only question which counts in the coming French presidential election: who will be chosen to have the honour of coming second behind the ultra-right-wing Marine Le Pen? (Everyone accepts that Marine Le Pen will win the first round, with up to 30% of the vote. But with 70% of the electorate saying they would never vote for her, it’s who comes second, and therefore goes through to the second round, which counts).
On the right, it looks like being Nicolas Sarkozy again, unless one of his rivals has the courage to come out and say what everybody knows: that Sarkozy has six or seven teams of examining magistrates on his tail, for a variety of suspected crimes ranging from corrupting high court judges to taking multi-million euro bribes from Colonel Ghadaffi. He may be cleared of all suspicion, or he may find himself in a police cell on the eve of the election. No-one knows.
On the left, the possible candidates include the current left-of-centre President François Hollande, his right-of-left-of-centre Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and anybody else who thinks they could do better than the most unpopular French President in history.
Among the latter group will certainly be his minister of ecology, Segolène Royal, unsuccessful socialist candidate for the presidency in 2007, and mother of President Hollande’s four children.
The 2015 UNFCCC Paris conference will propel her into the political limelight (though France’s climate negotiations are apparently in the hands of ex-Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius). While serious people will be discussing carbon offsets and other climatey stuff, the French electors will be watching Segolène flash her eyelashes as she courts the 90% of French electors who think that nuclear is rubbish, renewables are marvellous, valiant peasants who block airport runways with their tractors are heroes, and anything would be better than another five years of Hollande.
I’m limbering up for this event by commenting on French Lefty Green blogs, which demands a certain intellectual effort, and the use of corners of my brain which haven’t been exercised since French O-level more than fifty years ago. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with you a sample of the kind of exchange which passes for discussion of things climatic in France.
This dates from 2009. It’s an interview with Michel Rocard, who was socialist Prime Minister during François Mitterand’s second presidential term, and who was named by incoming right wing president Sarkozy to head a commission to advise on ways to tackle climate change. This is an extract from his radio interview on France Info, translated from the transcription 30th July 2009 at
Michel Rocard: The principle is that the Earth is protected from excessive solar radiation by the greenhouse effect, that’s to say a kind of cloudy protection, I mean a gaseous protection, which in the atmosphere is relatively opaque to sunlight. And when we emit carbon dioxide or methane or nitrous oxide – a thingy which is found in agricultural fertilizers – we attack these gases, it reduces the protection of the greenhouse effect and the planet is slowly turning into a frying pan.
The result would be that the great-grandchildren of our great-grandchildren will no longer be able to live. Life will come to an end in seven or eight generations. It’s completely terrifying. So to do that, we must reduce what is emitted as carbon monoxide and began by addressing the major sources of that, which are the production of electricity and the manufacture of such things as cement, concrete, steel, aluminum or plastics that consume a lot of energy in their production. And to do that, we’ve invented quotas, it’s an invention that was made by the Kyoto Protocol, whose application in the European Union, twenty-seven countries, covers all electricity producers and manufacturers of materials, which are subject to emission ceilings. If they need to produce more, and thus emit more, they need to buy. It is a cost, so a kind of tax, they must buy quotas on the quota market.
Unfortunately this only applies to producers of energy and materials. For transportation, for agriculture, for heating our apartments, for our private motoring, there is nothing. And so in the case of Germany, these quotas are aimed at 60% of the production because it makes all its coal-fired electricity from the production of carbonic gases. It makes all it’s electricity from carbon. We make most of our electricity from nuclear, so we have less, but the quotas still only concern 40% of all our production of carbonic gas. And so we need something else.
So, the other thing is an idea of a deterrent tax. It is called the climate-energy contribution. Meaning that perhaps in the future, we will have to take care of other gases, methane and nitrous oxide, but later. We begin by carbon monoxide – carbon dioxide, sorry -, in order to get used to the change, and then to push for the bigger prize. After all it is two thirds of the total greenhouse gas emissions. This tax will mean higher prices for our energy consumption, hoping we will adjust the range so that it puts, so that it weighs as much on electricity from coal, gas, fuel, and it weighs as much on petrol as on heating oil for example. This tax should be implemented fairly soon. We could have tried to tax everything we sell in supermarkets, all the things that we buy there, based on the content of carbon dioxide in their manufacture. It was too complicated, it would have meant taking questionable decisions – never very certain, so we preferred to tax upstream, that is to say the energy consumption itself, and that is what the tax will hit.
Interviewer: It will hit everyone, everyone who uses…
Rocard: It must hit everyone, otherwise people won’t feel that it’s fair. We are facing a rather strange situation. Nobody denies the need to avoid roasting our great-grandchildren like whiting in a frying pan, that we need to go ahead with this. Everyone agrees on condition that the harshness of the tax – because it is nasty, it’s going to hurt – that the pain should be shared by everyone and there should be no exceptions or exemptions.
Interviewer: So you want it to be reimbursed to the poorest households.
Rocard: So, in fact, not only the poorest, in fact the poorest, the middle income households, but above all those who, because they live far away, because they are in rural areas…
Interviewer: …so have to use their car…
Rocard: They are forced to take their car, including those who work nights or unsocial hours where there is no subway or train to get there or bus..
Interviewer: It’s the case for us journalists who work mornings.
Rocard: Absolutely, we have to find, it’s complicated to do, the tax administration is working on it. We must find ways to exempt them. There are also complete trades, agriculture, fishing, taxi drivers, in which we must find ways to make the business economically feasible despite the tax. So, the tax must play a role in changing behaviour but it mustn’t murder people.
Interviewer: So in fact, if this tax …
Rocard: We’ve been working to find ways of not killing people.
Interviewer: It will bring in eight billion euros to the state. But if it doesn’t happen, the joke will be on you.
Rocard: It will be reimbursed largely by separating profoundly what is paid by households, that must be used to compensate the extra cost to households, from what is paid by companies which must be used offset what is paid by companies. Households must in no case have the impression that they’re contributing to the proper functioning of the economy and the functioning of businesses. That would be a disaster. So it’s hard to do and our recommendations to the tax administration that will organize it all in detail and above all organize the refunds are strict.
Interviewer: You have the full support of the Greens and Daniel Cohn Bendit, who came second in the European elections. I imagine you must be pleased about that.
Rocard: Yes, it is nice that they understand that we take these things seriously. Uh! the government is strong. I think we have had no objection to the principle of the tax. There will be plenty of fighting about the details, but we have had no objection to the principle of the tax from either the Socialist or the Communist Parties. Everyone knows that it can’t be avoided. So we must do it well.
Interviewer: Very quickly Michel Rocard, what are you going to do now that your report is in? What are your projects?
Rocard: I have a permanent mission which is that I’m French ambassador in charge of of the international negotiations concerning the Poles. And that’s very difficult because the Antarctic is more or less saved. It’s because I’m the father of the protocol which protects the environment in the Antarctic that they launched me into this affair.
In the Arctic, on the other hand, until five years ago no-one talked about it. It was something that only concerned poets, scientific researchers and explorers, that’s all. No-one went there. Since global warming we realise that we can go there and practise fishing and tourism, and that for two months of the summer big ships will be able to go round the North Pole via Siberia or Canada to go from Europe to Japan or China. That cuts 5000 kilometres off the journey. Everyone will be going there, and what’s more it’s full of petrol. Now, oil exploration represents an ecological threat.
Interviewer: We’ll have the chance…
Rocard: Putting all that in order is a long business and there’ll be some real battles…