In Donald Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the U.S.A from the Paris climate agreement, much applauded by his captive audience and much decried by the rest of the world, one sentence struck me particularly: “I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States - which is what it does”.
The idea that measures to reduce pollution and protect the environment are in some sense “punitive” is not new. In fact it reminded me of similar ideas expressed in France no more than 3 years ago by Segolène Royale, François Hollande’s erstwhile partner and, at the time, newly appointed Minister for the Environment: L’écologie ne doit pas être punitive” (ecology must not be punitive) she declared, putting a brave face on the government’s decision to abandon, in the face of popular protest, a toll for lorries using France’s highways, called the “ecotaxe”.
The initial idea was in line with what many of France’s neighbours have long since introduced, a special toll on heavy lorries using their roads, as a compensation for environmental pollution that all diesel powered lorries produce as well as increased wear and tear. The French government announced that it was introducing a similar scheme for the same reasons and that it would be operated through a series of automated toll gantries set up along main roads. The scheme was to be managed by a special purpose company. Many French regions applauded the move. Alsace and Lorraine for instance were particularly happy, given that many lorries heading North or South deliberately used French roads to escape the tax they would otherwise have to pay in Germany and Switzerland. Only Brittany objected, but it objected strongly. Road haulage firms, their representative organisations and farmers’ unions all claimed that the tax was unfair to Brittany because their largely agricultural region is a long way from Paris and would be disproportionately "punished". When the government showed no signs of backing down, the Bretons started to organise street demonstrations, sabotaged some gantries and in a stroke of genius that caught immediate media attention, took to wearing red phrygian bonnets, (“les bonnets rouges”) a powerful symbol of the reign of terror in 1794.
As happens so often in France, whenever there is a whiff of revolution in the air, threatening to bring more people out on the streets and the country to a standstill, the government eventually did back down and announced the suspension of the “ecotaxe”. It was on this occasion that Segolène Royal uttered her famous phrase. It may not have been punitive for Brittany, but it was a very different story for the French taxpayer, as the government eventually had to write off about €1 billion that had been invested in the gantries, the technology, the toll collecting company, salaries and ultimately, winding-up costs and severance pay.
Since 2014 of course, the reality of climate change has become increasingly evident and the need for concerted measures more urgent. In December 2015, the landmark Paris climate agreement was signed. Whatever each country has committed to in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is clear that all governments are going to have to make difficult choices that will impinge on lives and livelihoods. Politicians who claim that they cannot countenance tough measures because they are “punitive” are only shirking those hard choices and are knowingly sacrificing long-term benefits for short-term political advantage. This is surely one of the components of populism, of which Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, Segolène Royal can rightly be accused.
More forward-looking politicians are less afraid of popular opposition. Anne Hidalgo, the mayoress of Paris, is also readily accused of “punitive ecology” for closing a major artery along the Seine in Paris to motor vehicles and banning older cars from the city during rush hours. But, advised by a deputy for transport who is from the Green party, she has stuck to her guns. This being said, it has become increasingly clear to all that there are far too many motor vehicles in Paris at any one time for the good of peoples’ health and that of the planet. Anyone who regularly walks through the city’s streets cannot help being struck by the air and noise pollution, the endless queues of idling vehicles at traffic lights and the frequent gridlock at major intersections. And this, it should be noted, in a city which has one of the best public transport networks in the world. The Paris authorities have not yet gone so far as to publicly envisage road pricing but it will surely come one day, as it has to other cities in Europe and the rest of the world.
Even in France, where public opinion is often slower to evolve than in countries with a reputation for greater pragmatism, there is a growing realisation that enough is enough. As the years pass, environmentally friendly policies will slowly but surely come to be more applauded than decried and the phrase “punitive ecology”, it must be hoped, become as out-dated as the stagecoach.