How to reconcile the French with the carbon tax?

In the space of a five-year term, it has gone from the status of a miracle solution to that of an absolute taboo. Three years after the yellow vests crisis, and while purchasing power has again become the number one obsession of the French, the carbon tax is missing from the presidential campaign. Even before the war in Ukraine, which led to soaring energy prices, the environmental candidate Yannick Jadot had carefully avoided mentioning it in his program, preferring an ecological bonus-malus, less flammable. Except that with a carbon price frozen at €44.60 per tonne, France will have a hard time keeping its climate commitments. As a reminder, the carbon component of energy taxes (such as the TICPE on petrol) should have reached €100 per tonne at the end of the five-year period to comply with the Paris agreements. So at the time when “The climate stakes have never been higher”, as the IPCC has just recalled, how can we reconnect with ecological taxation?

In a recent report, the Council of Compulsory Levies (CPO) outlined a track, by proposing to direct the revenue from the tax to promote its acceptability. A way according to the CPO to respond to the disadvantage of this tax which means that poor households are proportionally more affected than the rich in the event of an increase. On paper, such earmarking goes against the principle of non-assignment of tax. “If orthodox economists are so attached to this principle, it is because the allocation of revenue to a specific expenditure leads to poor budgetary arbitration, but also because it tends to develop a clientelist vision of tax” , specifies François Ecalle, of the Fipeco site. But in environmental taxation, where the issue of consent has always been more acute, there are many exceptions. “In reality, from the start of green taxation, which is not intended to finance public expenditure but to change behavior, the idea developed that it was necessary to know where the money was going”, explains Matthieu Glachant, professor at Mines ParisTech. In the 1990s, the implementation of the tax on rainwater pollution overwhelmed the mayors and led to the birth of water agencies, to ensure that the money would be used for depollution. Twenty years later, the contribution to the public electricity service (CSPE) was created to finance the development of renewable energies and paid into a special account.

Therefore, why not use this principle of arrowing for the so controversial carbon tax? “In France, the government chose not to have a carbon tax separate from energy taxes, thinking that it would be better accepted. But when people found out with skyrocketing fuel prices, she was definitely discredited,” recalls Sébastien Postic, from the I4CE climate institute. And then, what to do with the revenue from the tax: invest in the energy transition, or pay checks to “energy prisoners”? Among the avenues considered, many economists are pleading for the creation of a “carbon dividend”, making it possible to make greater use of the largest emitters of CO2in this case the rich. “The problem with the carbon dividend, which consists of returning the tax revenue in the same amount to each citizen, is that people do not understand how it contributes to reducing inequalities”, underlines Adrien Fabre, from the Paris School of Economics. This is however the case: take two individuals, if one consumes 200 € of gasoline (including 40 € tax) and the other 100 € (including 20 € tax), each will then receive half of the product of the tax (thus €30 each), which further “penalizes” the biggest consumer.

Basically, this is the whole problem of carbon taxation which, in order to develop, needs a lot of education. “Besides, during the yellow vests crisis, it was not so much the tax that was the problem as the feeling of injustice that prevailed the day after the abolition of the ISF and while certain sectors, such as the aerial, continued to elude it”, recalls Adrien Fabre, according to whom green taxation and social justice are now inseparable. “The fact remains that to restore the carbon tax, we should already give more credit to political speech by ceasing to make the French believe that the energy transition can be done without pain”, concludes the economist and professor at the Collège de France Christian Gollier. Difficult to hear in this period when all political action aims to limit the effects of the war in Ukraine on household bills.


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