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Editorials Globe editorial: In France’s ‘gilet jaune’ protests, a lesson for Canadian carbon taxes

The French like to protest. Left, right; young, old; Catholic, communist – it hardly matters in a nation that believes in its marrow the immortal slogan of 1968: “Under the cobblestones, the beach.”

Even so, the “yellow vest” protests that have been roiling France for the past couple of weeks are particularly intense. Last weekend they devolved into rioting that left three dead, more than 100 injured, hundreds more arrested, and a capital littered with broken glass and the charred husks of cars.

The gilets jaunes are easier to see as vessels of meaning than the usual cast of militants storming the barricades of Paris. After all, their original cause was opposition to a hike in the taxes on diesel and gasoline; hence their choice of costume – the fluorescent visibility vests that French drivers must keep in their vehicles.

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As a result, the protestors have been portrayed as sympathetic avatars of anti-carbon-tax sentiment by Conservative politicians who are otherwise pro-cobblestone, such as Jason Kenney, the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party.

Yes, the protests have grown to incorporate a broader critique of French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration and its perceived indifference to the travails of ordinary people.

But the fact remains that, though many factors fed the chaos in France this past week, an environmental tax was the spark, and scrapping the tax was the measure Mr. Macron used to douse unrest. A meeting of world leaders in Poland this week to discuss the Paris climate agreement will happen in the shadow of a riot set off in part by carbon pricing. That should help focus their minds.

Taxing carbon is the most economically efficient way to bring emissions down, but it’s also one of the politically trickiest. Consider the bargain being offered to taxpayers: You will pay now and, in the case of a carbon tax, you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying – unlike regulations, whose costs may be greater but are also hidden and hard to see. You may receive no immediate benefits – unlike with the building of green infrastructure like subways. You are averting a global environmental catastrophe – but it’s one whose worst you will not live to see and whose likelihood has been determined by science you don’t understand.

No, not an easy sell. So how can the best climate policy be made more popular?

The first part of the answer is messaging. Calls to tax emissions are too often made in moralistic language, as though driving was a crime and forcing people to pay more for it was a way of exacting justice. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does this obliquely when he says it will “no longer be free to pollute in Canada," as though we are all getting away with something dirty in the meantime.

That is sure to put people off. The modern economy is built on fossil fuels – it makes polluters of us all. People don’t like to be told they’re blameworthy for doing something they can’t avoid. Better to sell carbon taxes as the prudent thing, rather than the righteous thing.

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The second part is limiting corporate carve-outs to stem the sense that carbon taxes are unfair. The Trudeau government announced this summer that large companies in trade-sensitive sectors will only be taxed on a fraction of their emissions, as little as 10 per cent in industries like steel-making.

The idea is to keep firms from moving to a no-rules jurisdiction. But it also creates a two-tier system that gives the appearance that consumers are paying full freight while some big corporations get a deal.

Better to give those firms corresponding tax cuts for other parts of their business, while keeping the same environmental rules in place for everyone.

The last bit of advice for leaders in Poland this week is to funnel some concrete benefit back to carbon-tax payers. Look to the British Columbia model, or the way that, in provinces without a carbon tax, the Trudeau government is planning to return carbon-tax revenues to taxpayers.

Some American progressives are intrigued by the idea of a Green New Deal that would tax carbon and spend the revenue on environmentally friendly infrastructure like public transit. But that lets Conservatives scream “tax grab.”

Ideally, governments should slash income taxes to the same degree they raise carbon taxes, thereby discouraging pollution but also letting workers take home more pay – another demand, it bears noting, of the gilets jaunes.

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