The UK should take heart from France’s green revolution

Boris Johnson’s record on the climate emergency pales in comparison to Emmanuel Macron’s

Esm O'Keeffe
Sunday 05 July 2020 11:37
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The world may be distracted by the pandemic, but French voters have not forgotten the climate crisis. Local elections in France have seen an unprecedented green wave, prompting the president, Emmanuel Macron, to announce a new environmental programme.

On 28 June, France’s Green Party and its left-wing allies made significant gains, taking major cities such as Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseille. In Paris, the green-endorsed socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, known for her anti-pollution and pro-pedestrian agenda, was re-elected with a clear majority.

Municipal elections in France are far more indicative of the political landscape than their equivalents in Britain. As a result, the green wave and the disappointing result for his own party, La République En Marche (LREM), have been a wake-up call for the French president. In response, Macron has promised €15bn over two years to fight climate change, and has accepted all but three of the 149 proposals published last week by the Citizens’ Commission for the Climate.

The Commission, established in 2019 in response to the Gilets Jaunes protests, is composed of 150 randomly selected individuals from all walks of life. Recommendations include a “carbon score” for all products and a call for French citizens to reduce their meat and cheese consumption by 20 per cent. Macron has also declared himself open to holding two referenda on environmental issues in 2021: one on amending Article 1 of France’s constitution to “introduce notions of biodiversity; of the environment; and the fight against global warming”, and the other on criminalising ecocide. A petition to make ecocide a crime in Britain, by contrast, was shut down early in 2019 due to the general election, with only 22,000 signatures.

Macron’s 146-point plan to fight the climate crisis is a far greater commitment than anything Johnson’s government has announced. It will certainly face challenges. Several of the recommendations, such as backing the creation of a European carbon tax, require cooperation at international level.

The plans have also drawn criticism domestically; Macron’s rejection of a 4 per cent tax on dividends of companies making more than €10m in annual profits is likely to cement his reputation as the “president of the rich”. In a telling YouGov poll, 58 per cent thought Macron was not sincere in his concern for the environment. Certainly, the timing of the announcement, coming days after his own party’s dismal performance in the local elections, suggests political expediency rather than ideological commitment. But given that French voters are notoriously harsh on their leaders, perhaps it is unsurprising that the programme has drawn scepticism from a stony-hearted electorate.

Boris Johnson’s record on the climate emergency pales in comparison to Macron’s. The prime minister’s Rooseveltian “New Deal” has triggered an outcry from experts over the limited environmental content. When held up against the French president’s 146-point plan, the British government’s regurgitation of an unfulfilled manifesto pledge to plant more trees, for example, fails to deliver.

Johnson’s actions are a long way from living up to his statement during the 2019 election campaign that “there is nothing more conservative than protecting the environment”. His “build back greener” rhetoric threatens to be empty bluster. As host of the COP26 UN climate summit, the government should demonstrate a greater commitment to combating the climate crisis.

So what should Britain do? We must take note of this growing political movement as it gains traction across Europe. France provides ample political inspiration. In 2016, it became the first country in the world to legislate against food waste. Britain ought to do the same. The British government ought to establish its own citizens’ commission of randomly selected individuals to produce environmental recommendations in collaboration with experts.

In Britain, lockdown has seen reduced pollution and the pedestrianisation of city centres. Where possible, this progress must be maintained. Across the Channel, we can only hope that Macron’s new environmental zeal is sincere. But as Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes have shown us, climate activism is a global movement.

The pandemic has claimed thousands of lives and, in time, so will the climate crisis. The 2019 European Parliament elections saw the birth of a green wave. In last week’s local elections, French voters showed the environment remains at the top of the agenda. What is Britain waiting for?

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