Friday, 11 September 2009

The little prince is saving his planète

So he's done it. Unless you've had your head in a paper bag for the last couple of days you'll know that Nicolas Sarkozy has put his money (or rather, our money) where his mouth is and introduced a carbon tax. From the beginning of next year, businesses and households will pay for the privilege of using carbon-emitting fuels at the starting rate of 17 euros a tonne.

Assuming, of course, he manages to steer his proposals unchanged through both houses of parliament by then. And that, from my armchair vantage point, is not looking entirely likely. Because although in theory politicians from all parties agree with ecologists that a carbon tax is necessary (Nicolas Hulot, France's tame popular ecologist, famously managed to extract a pre-presidential election promise from all the candidates that they would introduce a carbon tax if elected), now that push has come to shove most of them are finding reasons to disapprove: it's the wrong time; it will penalise the poorest families; it goes too far; it doesn't go far enough; it's too unwieldy to work; it's never going to change behaviour.

Now I'm no great fan of our president - people as hyper as he is scare me - but I have to concede a sneaking admiration for him on his determination to integrate green thinking into day to day politics. Not being one to underplay his own importance, Nicolas Sarkozy sees himself as a 'leader in the fight to save the human race'. And in spite of all the criticism and hyperbole flying round, I do actually believe he is genuine on this one. France is now committed to reducing carbon emissions to a quarter of the 1990 figures by 2050, and for several years now we've had decent financial incentives (and now interest-free loans) to install energy saving measures and renewable energy systems. For our petit prince, the new carbon tax is not 'just another tax', but a whole new way of looking at taxation - the first step in a fiscal revolution which will lead France into a post-petrol economy: he wants to shift the burden of taxation from labour towards polluting goods and services.

That's a pretty tall, and radical, order. The nitty gritty is that we'll all pay around 4 or 5 centimes more per litre of petrol, diesel and heating oil; a little less on gas; nothing on electricity, because it's almost all produced in nuclear power stations. All the money thus raised will then be returned to us: every household will benefit from a tax reduction (non tax payers will receive a 'green cheque') which will vary according to family composition and whether people live in the town or the country. Urban dwellers who use public transport to get around, and electricity for all their energy needs will therefore do nicely, thank you. People like us, in the middle of nowhere? Not so well.

There's a certain, rather comical, irony in all of this for us at Grillou. As some of you who knew us in our restaurant days may remember, we were pretty active in campaigning on the whole issue of carbon emission: we were England's first - and then only - carbon neutral restaurant, and we ran a carbon offset scheme for our guests and customers to balance the carbon emitted in their journey to us. And now, here we are living in a house with - yes, oil-fired central heating! We have become the polluters, and we shall pay. Don't get me wrong, of course we should pay. And one day, when (or rather, if) finances allow, we intend to replace our (German, and very efficient) orange monster of a boiler with an all singing all dancing wood pellet model. But carbon neutral we're not, nor will we be.

If I have one criticism of Nicolas Sarkozy's scheme it's that behaviour change needs more than willingness; it also needs resources - in this case, financial ones. And financial resources are in pretty short supply for the average rural household in France: people here simply don't have pots of savings into which they can dip to finance new heating systems, or less polluting cars, or photovoltaic or thermal energy; nor do they have spare disposable income to pay back loans, whether interest-free or not. Not only that, but if you already do all you can to minimise your energy use not so much from green conviction but because you can't afford not to, where's left to go?

Perhaps that's why two thirds of people here profess themselves to be 'largely unhappy' with the new scheme. Perhaps if they also saw hefty tarifs on food that's travelled 6000 kilometres to get here, or on air travel (which, bizarrely, remains exempt), or on goods imported from 'dirty' carbon countries; perhaps if they saw the building regulations for new build houses altered to require the use of renewable energy sources; perhaps if they saw their politicians and Eurocrats living and travelling more modestly: perhaps then they might feel less picked upon.

We shall see.

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