Sarkozy Floats A Carbon Tax--And Things Get Ugly

by Bradford Plumer | September 8, 2009

Sure it hasn't been any sort of stroll in the park trying to enact climate-change legislation here in the United States. But it's not like we're uniquely stubborn on this front. Keith Johnson tells the sordid tale of what happened when Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a modest—and revenue-neutral—carbon tax in France this summer:

In reality, France’s carbon tax is basically just a gasoline tax—and a tiny one at that. The electricity sector, overwhelmingly powered by emissions-free nuclear power, isn’t part of the plan, Prime Minister Francois Fillon told Le Figaro. The tax will basically fall on liquid fuels—raising pump prices 3 euro cents a liter (that’s roughly 15 U.S. cents a gallon).

Environmentalists are dismayed because the modest tax will do next to nothing to change consumption habits. But it is enough to rile up French consumers; public opinion polls over the weekend suggested about 66% of French are opposed to the measure, even though it will theoretically be offset by tax breaks in other areas.

The goings-on in France are worth checking out for anyone who thinks a carbon tax might be a more politically palatable method of dealing with global warming than the cap-and-trade approach. As it turns out, the carbon fee has been remarkably easy to demagogue—and this in a left-leaning country that's hardly averse to taxes. Sarkozy's presidential opponent, Segolene Royal, dashed out of the gate early on this, criticizing the proposal as "unjust" and "inefficient"—even though most economists will happily tell you that a straight-up carbon tax is the most efficient way to curb emissions. (As an alternative, Royal suggested slapping an excise tax on fossil-fuel companies... sound familiar?)

Meanwhile, halfway across the planet, the new government in Tokyo is going full steam ahead with its ambitious new climate agenda, with plans to cut Japan's greenhouse gases 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But, as Johnson points out, this too could be an uphill slog—the complaints from business groups have already been deafening, even from companies like Honda and Toyota that are, in theory, actively trying to position themselves for a low-carbon future.

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