Changing Our Individual Behavior Isn’t Going to Save the Planet

Two years since his fuel tax hike was sunk by the Yellow Vests protests, Emmanuel Macron’s new climate law again exhorts the French to show “willpower” in the fight to “make the world great again.” But the law does nothing to impose limits on the most environmentally damaging businesses — instead blaming climate change on citizens’ failure to alter their habits.

French president Emmanuel Macron attends a virtual Earth Day Climate Summit at the Elysee Palace in Paris on April 22, 2021. (Ian Langsdon / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

In September 2018, Emmanuel Macron’s government announced a tax hike on gasoline products — claiming this would drive the shift in consumer behavior needed to fulfill France’s emissions-reduction commitments. Dismissing the complaints of his chronically discontented subjects, Macron suggested that tweaks such as these would guide individuals toward a more responsible and ecologically sustainable way of life. The sum of these changes could “make our planet great again,” the goal Macron had set for himself when Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

This opening gesture toward something resembling environmental reform quickly degenerated into the first crisis of Macron’s presidency. Despite its green facade, critics claimed that the real purpose of the hike was to compensate for a tax cut on France’s largest fortunes that had entered into effect that year.  Starting in late November 2018, motorists donning yellow vests began occupying roundabouts around France. Each Saturday, the Yellow Vests, or gilets jaunes, took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands, often in daylong clashes with riot police. Macron quickly backpedaled, withdrawing the proposed hike in mid-December 2018.

Two and a half years later, the dust of the Yellow Vest revolt has settled. Macron’s government is now adding the belated final touches to its environmental agenda in the form of the proposed “climate and resilience” law. Currently being debated by parliament, the legislation has drawn fierce criticism from NGOs and the divided left-wing opposition as a patchwork of half-measures, toothless prohibitions, and meek incitements. In response to the debate that the Yellow Vests have forced opened since late 2018 on a socially just energy transition, Macron is doubling down on an environmental politics grounded in corporate self-governance and individual responsibility.

Falling Short

In early February, in the lead-up to parliament’s consideration of the law, the Ministry of the Ecological Transition released a report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management consultancy giant. According to its authors, France is well on its way to cutting annual greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels. In a circuitous though ringing endorsement of Macron’s environmental agenda, BCG writes that “the potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the measures already taken during the five-year term and proposed in the new Climate and Resilience law is altogether in accordance with 2030 targets, assuming their full and determined [volontariste] execution.”

The devil, of course, is in the details — that is, what authors call a “full and determined execution.” In a textbook example of bureaucratic doublespeak, they then skirt through a kaleidoscope of variables, probabilities, and eventualities that complicate the idea of an already accomplished transition. A full 115 million metric tons of CO2 must be shaved off France’s annual carbon diet by 2030, but it turns out that this is anything but guaranteed. “Only a small part of the potential total, representing approximately 21 million metric tons of CO2 reduction, seems likely to be attainable,” the report states. The next 57 million metric tons is “possible”; another 27 million metric tons, almost a quarter of the remaining gap, “difficult to attain.”

With these projections, the BCG report is circling around the fact that France is lagging far behind its emissions reduction commitments. In fact, if in its most optimistic perspective France could indeed come close to the 40 percent target, this objective — brandished throughout the report — is obsolete, another fact BCG authors don’t care to acknowledge. In December 2020, European heads of state set a new target of cutting emissions by 55 percent, relative to 1990 levels.

Macron needs praise from private consultancies like BCG because of the growing chorus in France calling out his foot-dragging — much at odds with his initial promise of environmental action. Indeed, back in November 2018, just as the Yellow Vests crisis was beginning to occupy national headlines, the government had even created a High Council on Climate (HCC), meant to rally scientific expertise behind his agenda.

As an institution, it is the relic of an era when Macron was viewed in many elite global circles as a leading voice on climate reform, the brash young modernizer to contrast with the Trumps and Jair Bolsonaros of the world. Bringing together climate scientists, economists, and a litany of experts and engineers, the HCC would be charged to evaluate and advise the government on the energy transition.

This is just the sort of body that one would imagine the government seeking out as it was bringing bill before parliament. After having been snubbed by the government, however, the HCC nonetheless decided to study the proposed law. In its report, the HCC regretted “delays that are entirely incompatible with the expected pace of action against climate change.”

Though largely symbolic, the Administrative Court of Paris recently established an important precedent in the so-called “case of the century,” which saw environmental NGOs accusing the French state of failing to fulfill environmental commitments. On February 3, the judges condemned the “failure of the state to implement public policies enabling it to achieve the objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels that it had agreed to.”

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way?

We can at least credit the BCG report with having identified the guiding assumption behind Macron’s environmentalism and his latest legislative push. No fewer than twenty times throughout the report, the authors allude to what they refer to as the scenario based on “determined” action on greenhouse gas emissions.

They don’t care to clarify what they mean by this, so we have to read between the lines. The report refers to the grandiose though ambiguous need for a “massive and indefinite mobilization” of all the “component parts of the Nation.” There is the habitual, though no less vague, talk of “attentive citizens” and a necessary “change in behavior.” Ultimately, the current government’s environmental policy — the only “scenario” imaginable to the Boston Consulting Group, which also advises some 60 percent of corporations listed on France’s CAC 40 stock index — can be reduced to a peculiarly circular logic: emissions reductions targets are attainable . . . if actors have the wherewithal to change their behavior.

The new climate and resilience law will supposedly serve to nudge the French toward that future. Barbara Pompili, the minister of the ecological transition, tellingly boasted to Le Monde that “on the condition that these measures are applied with determination, we’ll succeed in living up to our commitments.” In a conversation by telephone, Senator Ronan Dantec of the Greens translated this: “They assume the fact that that the measures are not sufficient, but that if there is enough determination within French society to apply them, it’ll perhaps yield some results . . . ‘we’re going to make the bet that French society will go above and beyond the measures in the law.’”

The law is remarkable for the breadth and range of its inadequacy. Thanks to the Yellow Vest revolt, it is now a commonplace that averting climate disaster requires a “revolution” in our way of life and that no sphere of human activity can go unchanged. With guidelines and incentives touching on everything from domestic air travel to building renovations and vegetarian meals, this law hints at the range of activities that need to be reorganized, all while seeking to avert and preempt any proactive mobilization of the state.

Seriously curtailing unsustainable consumption is unimaginable, for example, without regulation of the advertising industry. The climate and resilience law, however, institutionalizes the advertising industry’s self-governance. Thanks to a new “climate contract” with the Superior Audiovisual Council, France’s communications regulatory agency, major corporations like Havas Media and Publicis Worldwide will make voluntary commitments to encourage ostensibly sustainable forms of consumption. In an empty gesture to advocates of direct regulation, the proposed law takes the meaningless step of outlawing the marketing of fossil fuel products. Of course, this ignores the fact that the marketing division at an oil major like Total surely knows that this type of advertising is already anathema.

All the talk about “volontarisme” — determination, or willpower — is a euphemism for markets and profits. But on its own terms, it cannot function without a legal framework to punish and restrict actors who step out of line. Macron’s government is therefore trying to portray the codification of the crime of “ecocide” as a major breakthrough in environmental law.

Having long fought to firmly embed environmental protections within the penal code and ensure that already-existing legislation will actually be enforced, environmental organizations fear that the new legal architecture will amount to a dead letter. MEDEF, France’s main business lobby, warned the government this December that “adding such a repressive device would be a source of major legal uncertainty and would constitute a signal contrary to the desire to revive the economy and pursue the reindustrialization of the country.”

The bill thus stipulates that an activity needs to be proven to have a “major and lasting impact,” with effects lasting at least ten years, and that the act was deliberate and not the result of corporate negligence. In an op-ed, Greenpeace legal counsels Clara Gonzales and Laura Monnier write that “the government has chosen a pseudo-sanction that misses (purposefully?) its target.”

Talking Shop

The climate and resilience law looks especially hollow when we consider the potentially fruitful experiment that preceded it. Seeking to rein in the public debate opened up by the Yellow Vests, Macron announced the creation of a citizen commission tasked to come up with propositions to guide environmental policy. The Citizens’ Convention for Climate (CCC), which met between October 2019 and June 2020, brought together some 150 French people chosen at random. Convention-goers were split up into six committees, tasked individually to come up with propositions on themes ranging from housing to mobility and work.

Claire Morcant was on the beach in Marseille when she received a call informing her that she had been selected to serve on the CCC. A forty-nine-year-old urban and territorial planning professional, she had never really been interested in environmental politics before becoming involved in the convention, where she worked on the committee focused on consumption.

Her working group requested explicit prohibitions of unsustainable products such as SUVs, on the model of a law outlawing tobacco advertising. “We couldn’t ask the government to reflect on solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while allowing the publicity industry to continue making advertisements as usual,” she remarked. “We had asked for a controlling structure for that, with a strong system of penalization . . . What they proposed instead is a ‘climate contract’ with the publicity industry. With fine intentions, but as for me, I’m quite skeptical about it.”

On November 27, 2020, the publicity industry waged an opening attack on the CCC and its proposals. In a livestreamed communications industry roundtable, leading executives spoke with deputies of the parliamentary majority to argue that the advertising industry could play a role in the ecological transition and in encouraging sustainable modes of consumption. Aurore Bergé, a Macronist deputy in the National Assembly, celebrated that “the advertising industry could regulate itself.”

Morcant regrets that the convention did not demand that its 149 propositions be put to the French people in a referendum. Ultimately, the convention decided to let the government handle the proposals, which Macron promised last June would be presented “unfiltered” to parliament. For Morcant, herself politicized by her participation in the convention, a referendum would have been a way to inform people and engage the broader population in the serious questions posed by the environmental crisis. “There was a lost opportunity,” she acknowledges.

Morcant defends the CCC from those who view it as a pure government ploy. “It was an incredible adventure. It was transformative for each of us,” Morcant affirms. “There was a true representativity of France and of the French people.” She is likewise skeptical of critics who claimed that the CCC’s proposals did not offer enough: “Many people say that the 149 proposals are not the building blocks for a new society. But they are.”

Clément Sénéchal, a climate campaigner and organizer at Greenpeace, is more guarded in his assessment of the CCC. He told Jacobin, “There were no revolutionary propositions. The repertoire of climate policies is widely known. We know that it implies a rupture with the dominant ideology, but we nonetheless found ourselves with a series of rather detailed measures, endorsed by the Citizens’ Climate Convention, and that were not afraid to enter into confrontation with capital, and to pose constraints on capital, and that’s something.”

Judged on their own merits, the proposals of an engaged group of 150 randomly selected citizens reveal a society struggling to break from the myth of corporate self-government. To cite a few examples, the convention called for the return of the estate tax dropped by Macron in 2017, new taxes on financial derivatives and dividends, the freezing of airport construction projects, and moratoriums on the artificialization of land through the repurposing of abandoned lots. These proposals do not contain all of the answers, but they attest to the growing conviction that seriously reducing emissions requires direct state intervention, collectively determined regulations on consumption, and wealth redistribution.

It would be wrong to call this a “consensus.” The party system in France is such that these ideas have yet to seriously upset or alter the political balance of power. Nonetheless, the proposals of the CCC show that the demands that emerged in the aftermath of the Yellow Vests revolt are here to stay, despite Macron’s attempt to bury and divert them through the climate and resilience law.

One of the commonsense proposals of the CCC called for a de facto ban on most flights within France, through the closing of air routes so long as the same commute could be made in under four hours thanks to low-emissions alternatives such as train travel. An excessive infringement on the market and consumer freedom, critics replied; they successfully lowered the cutoff point in the law to 2.5 hours, vastly reducing the reach of this measure.

But perhaps the best display of the myth that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is the speed with which it is abandoned by its own advocates. On April 6, as parliament was entering its fifth week debating the climate and resilience law, the French state increased to 30 percent its capital share in Air France, under serious financial strain thanks to the pandemic. The move had to be approved by the European Commission, which is also enforcing the privatization of the continent’s rail network. The bailout was conditioned on accelerated corporate restructuring, which will see the firing of some 8,500 workers through 2022.