Lacking teeth

Why the French pollution tax is unlikely to produce results

Published: Thursday 30 September 1999

-- IN GERMONY Sweedan and the Netherlands, protecting and caring for the environment has become part of the culture. This high level of public awareness pushes the politicians and the industry towards looking for genuine changes in policies and laws. By contrast, it is just a greenwash here in France. The French politicians and government are very quick to make very grand announcements, but there is no action until we follow it up seriously and make a public issue out of it.

" This is how Bruno Rebelle, executive director of Greenpeace France, summarises the comparison of the progress made on environment protection across Europe. And the French approach to the 'polluter pays' policy does not seem any different either.

Earlier this year, French prime minister Lionel Jospin made a grand announcement about a revolutionary approach to tackle the growing problem of pollution in the country. He said his government was going to introduce a policy of 'polluter pays' and would impose heavy taxation on the polluting industries. The tax, referred to as Taxe General sur les Activites Polluantes, or tgap , was tom-tommed as the founding element of a modern and efficient ecological fiscal policy that the French government will follow over the coming years. The tgap currently consists of five elements: taxes on waste production, special industrial wastes, airport noise pollution, base oils and air pollution. None of them is new. But for Rebelle, the biggest danger comes from the lack of measures to tackle the growing air pollution, which is accounted for almost entirely by the consumption of fossil fuels for transportation and power generation. Yet, the transport sector is growing rapidly and also escapes the special taxation on air pollution.

The country has nearly 1 million km of roads, of which 9,000 are autoroutes, making France the densest road network in the world and the longest in the European Union. By contrast, the railway network is less than 32,000 km. This lopsided development of transport infrastructure is the primary reason for the large-scale automobile pollution. Greenpeace says 80 per cent of the entire increase in carbon dioxide production in France was accounted for by the road transport sector, which produces as much as 40 per cent of the entire country's carbon emissions of 330 million tonnes. This works out to almost six tonnes of emissions per person per year.

Partly responsible for the government apathy towards pollution is the strong oil and automobile lobby in the country. Two of France's oil majors -- Elf Acquitaine and Total -- are well known for their very strong political connections, which explains the reluctance of the successive French governments to levy a charge on petroleum products.

Besides the petroleum producers, the automobile lobby in France is also equally politically active. With psa (Peugeot-Citroen) and Renault, France produces almost 4 million vehicles each year. The automobile sector also accounts for almost 40 per cent of the French trade surplus and is one of the largest employers in the country. This industry has often lobbied with the government to prevent any moves to increase taxation on vehicles or even put an anti-pollution tax in place.

Rebelle says France should move towards a realistic tax on road transport, which is being subsidised heavily, and not just through a subsidy on the diesel prices alone. "There should also be a tax to account for the health expenses incurred due to the pollution caused by the road sector."

Greenpeace says it hopes the government will begin tackling the co 2 problem, but fears that the incentive not to use the carbon-producing fuels will be too low. "France has an ancient tradition of making very big pronouncements and then doing either just the contrary or doing nothing at all. And we at Greenpeace will have to keep pushing the government to ensure that they do not forget their commitments and take necessary action," says Rebelle.

The author is a freelance writer based in Paris

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