Movement Debate

A lesson from the yellow vests: Carbon taxes burn workers

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Jonathan Neale says climate activists must reject climate taxes: they harm the poor, and do little to actually slow climate change

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Jonathan Neale says climate activists must reject climate taxes: they harm the poor, and  do little to actually slow climate change

Jonathan Neale is a climate justice activist based in Britain and author of Stop Global Warming: Change the World. 

by Jonathan Neale, December 13, 2018

Say what you like about the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) in France, there is one conclusion we climate activists must draw. We must have nothing to do with carbon taxes, in any form. This article explains why.

A carbon tax is a tax on burning any fuel that puts carbon dioxide into the air and thus increases climate change. The idea — and it sounds good — is that because people have to pay that bit more, they will ration their use of those fuels. That way, we can slow down climate change. That’s why so many climate activists, especially in the U.S., have campaigned for carbon taxes.

But carbon taxes are always unfair to poor people and people on average incomes. We pay a larger proportion of our incomes on heating, on transportation and on electric bills than richer people do. So we pay a larger proportion of our total income on a carbon tax.

Moreover, because our incomes are lower, we really feel the extra tax. And we can’t reduce our usage much, because we still have to cook, heat the house and get to work.

It’s not just that carbon taxes are unfair. After all, many climate activists say that if it’s unfair and it still stops climate change, then it’s worth it. There’s something to be said for that point of view. After all, ordinary people are going to pay a lot more for the effects of climate change than we will ever pay in carbon taxes.

But the real kicker is the political effect of the unfairness. It opens a window for the right-wing — the climate deniers and the oil and coal companies. They can build a coalition between themselves, those who want no climate action, and large numbers of ordinary people who feel cheated by affluent greens. That coalition can be devastating because the environmentalists are hit from two sides.

This has happened many times. It’s how the yellow vests started out in France, though they have gone far beyond that now, and what they are doing is wonderful.

Still, they got the carbon tax on diesel fuel repealed. Many in the environmental movement, particularly outside France, felt that as a defeat.


That’s one reason for being against carbon taxes. Never fight a battle by charging uphill. But there’s a bigger reason.

I have spent the last 10 years working on plans for alternative energy and transport for climate jobs campaigns in different countries. In the case of every idea I have ever seen for carbon taxes, there is always a better way. And that better way always cuts emissions more.

Take the French example. The yellow vests were protesting against a rise in the tax on diesel fuel. That would have led to a small fall in emissions — maybe.

Instead of putting higher taxes in place, the government could have announced that in four years’ time, all new vehicles had to fully electric. And that vehicle owners would get loans to replace their cars and trucks. And that the government would hire 10,000 workers to build a grid of electrical charging points all over the country. And give grants to encourage new electric car factories in France.

Electric vehicles powered by coal and gas-fired power plants already use about a third less emissions than vehicles that run on oil. That’s a bigger cut in emissions than a carbon tax. It’s more new jobs. And it provides the possibility in future of running all road transport on electricity from solar and wind power. That would cut almost all emissions from transport.

That’s one example. The climate jobs campaigns I have worked with provide lots of other examples. You can cut emissions by a huge amount by moving people from cars to buses. Instead of making cars more expensive, you just say that buses will have two lanes reserved for them on major roads during the rush hour. Or all day on some roads. Then public buses move much more quickly than traffic does now, and people get on the bus.

Emissions from heating houses are another example. You simply change the building code so all new houses, public buildings and business buildings have to be built as what German architects call “passive houses.” You say the emissions from heating the building have to be only 10 percent of the average now.

The technology is there. It costs about 20 percent more, but it saves the homeowner or renter massively on utility bills. And it makes a lot more jobs, and more satisfying jobs, for construction workers.

The whole point in carbon taxes is that they assume fossil fuels will go on being used. Otherwise why tax? Worse, they build in a perverse incentive for governments to keep fossil fuels in place to keep taxes flowing.


The climate jobs campaigns I have been involved with have faced a parallel problem. In Britain, we built a campaign with a lot of union support for a government program for a million new permanent climate jobs, most of them in renewable energy, public transport and building conversion.

At first, our campaign was split over whether these should be all public-sector jobs. Many of the environmentalists who were involved were sympathetic to small business or to cooperatives.

But one thing swung us toward public-sector jobs. We knew we had to guarantee that if anyone lost their job in an old high-carbon industry, they would be guaranteed retraining and a new permanent climate job. If we said private companies would deliver that, everyone would know that was a lie.

We want that job guarantee because those oil-tanker drivers and natural-gas workers should not be punished. They built our economy. But not just because it’s right. If we don’t do that, we will divide the union movement, divide the working class and divide the electorate.

There are lots of examples of this. In South Africa, many environmentalists supported a program where the government gave contracts to private renewable energy companies, almost all from Europe. The amount of renewable energy was a small proportion of what was needed. There were hardly any jobs for South Africans — most jobs in renewable energy are in manufacturing.

South Africa has a public-sector electricity company called ESKOM that uses mainly South African-mined coal. The government threatened to close coal mines because of the renewable-energy contracts. The main coal miners’ union and the metal workers’ union threatened to strike against renewable energy to preserve jobs in a country with 40 percent unemployment.

Many environmentalists backed the government and the European companies, because they cared about climate change, even though the contracts were only going to provide less than 10 percent of the energy South Africa needs. The climate jobs campaign in South Africa has a program for a million new jobs, almost half of them in renewable energy in the public sector, with a promise of a permanent job for every coal miner.

West Virginia is the tragic example in the U.S. The state has a prouder and stronger union tradition than any other state in the union. That’s still there, handed down from mother and father to child. We saw it again in the teachers’ strike. West Virginia is also the state that voted for Trump by the largest margin in 2016. The reason for the union strength and the Trump vote is the same: coal.

There’s a real movement for green jobs and action on climate change building in the U.S. now. The Sunrise Movement, Sen. Bernie Sanders and incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are serious people with serious proposals.

The signs are that the U.S., and much of the world, is going to go into a recession sometime in the next two years. We will need jobs. The California fires were the turning point — everyone knows about climate change now, even when they deny it. It’s real, it’s here, and it’s hot.

There’s a lot that’s up in the air now about green jobs. How we will pay for them? What jobs? Companies on contract or a Climate Corps like the New Deal?

Me, I’m for a Climate Corps. Permanent government jobs, with decent wages and benefits. Then we can say to everyone that we have a decent job for every coal miner — a job transforming the world and protecting all living things. That would carry every valley in West Virginia.


  • I second all the points made by Birkeland.

    The fact that even comrade Neal does not even *mention* the possibility of a *progressive* carbon tax is depressing.

    A progressive carbon tax is supported by – among others – Johan Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus – do they – and other progressive tax activists like Birkeland not deserve to be taken seriously.

    I have over the last four years tried to engage Jonathan Neal from the UK Climate Jobs campaign, and Andreas Ytterstad from the Norwegian Climate Jobs campaign in a debate, arguing that a progressive carbon tax would be a mighty driver for creating climate jobs. Last time at the Political Ecology conference (POLLEN) in Oslo June 2018.

    The Climate jobs campaign has the political problem that it wants to tax everything else than carbon, but as long as fossil fuels are cheap, they will be used and the development of alternatives using subsidies is too slow. In an ever expanding capitalist economy more renewable energy will mostly just come in addition to the cheap fossil fuels when they become as cheap as fossil fuels.

    Neal seems to see either or between using a progressive fuel tax and banning the sale of new fossil fuel cars five years ahead. But is it not. Making petrol more expensive with a progressive carbon tax will signal to the car industry and the oil producers that their days are numbered.

    Because if driving a fossil fuel car does not become progressively more expensive the phasing out of fossil fuel cars will take a very long time – even if there was an effective ban on the sale of fossil fuel cars.

    The fossil fuel cars has to be phased out long before they are worn out. Not the least due to the fact that the total productive capacity of electric cars is by far not enough to meet the demand if a ban on fossil fuel cars were implemented world wide from let’s say 2025.

    In most countries it is much more expensive for a family to take the train than using the car, so relative prices must be changed.

    The fact that if fossil fuel remains cheap it will not pay off to retrofit houses. Neal swears to achieving that by regulation – and I am by no means opposed to using regulation/standards – but prices is in many contexts (not all!) an efficient way to change behaviour, to nudge.

    So what about finally taking the debate on a progressive carbon tax seriously Jonathan?

  • Thank to Jonathan Neale for his lesson from the yellow vests. However, I strongly disagree against his conclusion that the left and climate movements should resist all carbon taxes. Jonathan is right, that moderate taxes on carbon is not very effective in cutting emissions, and that carbon taxes hit the poor relatively harder than the rich. And that carbon taxes used to fund public services lock us into a dependency on fossil fuels.

    However, there are other options for carbon taxes, first and formost Carbon Fee and Dividend (CFD), advocated by The Citizens’ Climate Lobby in the US and Canada. This formula returns all revenue with an equal amount to each to each citizen. Which means that the average usage of fossil fuels is compensated to the individual. Which means that those with low carbon footprint (generally medium- and low-income people) receive more than they pay through fossil fees, while high-footprint (high-income) people receive less than they pay.

    So, this system has a built-in moderate social redistribution mechanism. Which is not perfect, but better than almost any other direct climate policy. Another key part of CFD is that is is meant to increase every year by a fixed amount, which means that everybody and every part of society must plan for the higher fossil taxes in years ahead.

    In Norway, the support for CFD is increasing, particularly on the left and in the environmental movement. Our country is blessed by abundance of clean hydro power, and with oil and gas, but still we have about the same emissions per capita as the EU.

    Now, any effective policy for reducing the supply of fossil fuels will lead to increasing fossil prices, without any compensation to workers or low-income people. And no taxes on fossil fuels will lead to the continued use of them. So, if we are not willing to go for pricing fossil pollution in a fair way, IMO we don’t have any real policy for exiting the fossil economy.

    This is not to say that a rising carbon tax is sufficient! The oil companies support such a tax, if it replaces all other climate policies, and remains on a low level. So, the climate movement must demand effectively rising carbon taxes, return in a fair way to the public. They should not replace other climate policies, but be put an top of whatever taxes and policies are there in advance, as a solution which terminates itself once fossil fuels are not in use anymore.

    In Norway mainstream parties mainly work for subsidising green investments like EVs, which is quite successful. This can be done, due to our affluent income to the government from oil production. So this kind of subsidising is out of the question for most other countries.

    I would like to read more on Climate and Capitalism about the upcoming carbon tax in Canada, which is camparable to the French tax, but comes with a compensation to the people, like CFD. How does the Canadian left evaluate this tax? And what about you, Ian Angus, who in the past has argued in favour of CFD?

  • If you believe in a transformation to zero carbon in the ten or so years that scientists tell us are left before it is too late for limiting the temperature rise below about 3 °C, then emissions from EV tend towards zero, while emissions from thermal cars always emit carbon. The today comparison is not pertinent. You can at the same time aim at a post-capitalistic society and other urban and road transport systems. However these should still need to be zero emission and I am not sure that this post-capitalist society can be reached within ten years. Massive electrification with wind and solar power and CCS is the only way to reach zero carbon in time.

  • I don’t think an electric vehicle using electricity from coal- or gas-fired power plants has much chance of being one third less emissions-intensive than a car running on petrol – even though electric engines are about three times as energy-efficient as internal combustion engines. Here’s a comparison of what happens to a tonne of oil equivalent in each case.

    Coal, amounting to 1 tonne of oil equivalent (toe), goes into a coal-fired power station of average efficiency (35%). Energy content of the electricity produced = 0.35 toe. Transmission through a typical electricity network loses 8%. Energy content of electricity for distribution = 0.32 toe. Energy delivered to cars’ wheels by a 60% efficient electric engine = 0.19 toe. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning the 1 toe of coal = 4 tonnes.

    Oil, amounting to 1 tonne of oil equivalent, goes into a refinery of average efficiency (95%). Energy content of the products produced = 0.95 toe. Energy delivered to cars’ wheels by a 20% efficient internal combustion engine = 0.19 toe. Carbon dioxide from burning 0.95 toe of oil products = 3 tonnes.

    This is a back-of-the-envelope example, designed to show that the inherent inefficiency of electricity production from fossil fuels means that the EVs will always struggle to be more carbon-efficient. All the figures could be adjusted. The only big difference would be made by using electricity from a gas-fired power station. The average power station efficiency is higher, carbon emissions per toe lower, and I reckon that you could deliver the same amount of energy delivered to the car’s wheels with just under 2 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

    So if we are talking about delivering energy to the car’s wheels, you might indeed get EVs with one-third less emissions if you source the electricity from gas- but not coal-fired power stations.

    But my simplistic figures take no account of the energy-intensive process of making the cars. For that, see T. Johannson et al, Global Energy Assessment (Cambridge University Press, 2012 – downloadable free on line), a technological bible for this sort of thing. A summary of the results of studies of cars’ lifecycle emissions concludes that where the electricity is from coal, “switching to EV increases CO2 emissions” (p. 605).

    A question for socialists is this. Should we join in these discussions about the limited gains that could be made by switching to EVs – or, in the context of our vision of living better in a post-capitalist society, focus on how to transform urban transport systems, together with urban built environments, from top to bottom and inside out?

  • Here are three comments. First. I agree with Jonathan Neale that the “yellow vest”’s success in forcing the Macron government to retreat, not only on diesel tax but also on the minimum wage, is welcome. Notwithstanding the complex character of the “yellow vest” movement – which seems to include all types of politics, from very reactionary to genuinely collectivist – this is a reminder that uncompromising street action by masses of people is often the best and fastest way to change government policy. For people (including me) who think that society, rather than government, must be the motive force of change, that’s important.

    Second, about things that social-democratic or other “left” political forces might put in their programmes. Like Jonathan I would oppose regressive taxes that hit working people, such as Macron’s diesel tax. However there are presumably other taxes on carbon. further up the supply chain, that we might favour. For example in the UK, in the tax years 2014-15 and 2015-16, the aggregate tax bills of oil companies working on the North Sea was negative (i.e. the Treasury handed the companies hundreds of millions of pounds in rebates), due to generous tax breaks to the companies for decommissioning their equipment and other purposes. The government has promised them a similarly good deal way into the future. I hope that a future Labour government will tax these companies much more harshly, and use the money for the common good.

    Third. What might such political forces advocate to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels? Unlike Jonathan, I oppose investing in electric cars. By supporting them, unions and social-democratic political parties could exacerbate the global warming problem, not solve it. For a start, EVs are not as emissions-effective as Jonathan claims. I would dispute that EVs using electricity from coal- and gas-fired power plants are one third less emissions-intensive than cars running on oil, as Jonathan suggests. (I’ll do a separate comment on the figures.) But there is a more fundamental question. Will the transition away from fossil fuels involve transforming the way that we live? Yes. Completely. That includes transforming cities, superceding carbon-intensive urban transport systems where people not only live to work, rather than working to live, but actually live to work-plus-sit-in-traffic-jams-on-the-way-there-and-back. The bus lanes that Jonathan suggests are only a small part of this. I am not arguing against motorised transport, or saying EVs won’t have a part to play. But I can not envisage a transition away from fossil fuels that stops short of breaking the power not only of oil companies but also of the car manufacturers – who are greenwashing themselves with EVs the same way that oil companies greenwash themselves with biogas, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and so on. We need to beware of joining in this false discourse, and talk with car workers and urban residents about how to transform the whole system.

    By coincidence, I made some arguments against supporting EVs in this interview, published yesterday.