Another day of violence will reinforce the yellow cloud already hanging over the UN climate summit in Katowice and could dampen political enthusiasm for implementing the tough measures needed to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Last Sunday tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Brussels to protest political inaction on climate change. It was timed for the start of this year’s UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland 600 miles away.
But delegates meeting in Katowice this week have been much more concerned about a protest that had taken place in Brussels two days earlier, when 300 members of the now-notorious “yellow vest movement” took to the streets of the European Union’s capital, throwing pool balls at police and setting cars on fire.
The demonstration were an offshoot of the French “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests) movement protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s environmental taxes – specifically increases in taxes on automobile fuel in order to discourage people from driving. On 24 November, protests in Paris against the green taxes turned violent. The 8,000 demonstrators burnt more than 100 cars, tore down signs, built barricades and threw cobblestones. Police shot tear gas and water cannons into the crowd. In all, the yellow vests caused €1.5 million in property damage, and two people have died as a result of the demonstrations.
The yellow vests are coming back to Paris and Brussels tomorrow, 8 December – and officials are privately warning that the violence, damage and death toll could be the highest yet. The yellow vests have now attracted worldwide attention and are enjoying widespread public support in French opinion polls, with some celebrities including Pamela Anderson voicing their support.
Macron has already capitulated and suspended the fuel tax, but this has not mollified the protesters. The movement has grown into a larger protest against increasing cost of living in the face of stagnant wages, and a feeling that the poor are being made to should an unjust proportion of the tax burden.
The fact that these protests were kicked off by environmental taxes has spooked the delegates in Katowice, who represent all the countries in the world and are negotiating the rules for the 2009 Paris Climate Agreement which will take effect in 2020.
Opinion polls still show that the public wants politicians to act on climate change, as Sunday’s demonstration in Brussels showed. But perhaps not if it involves short-term inconveniences. At least, this is the message some are taking from the events in France and Belgium over the past weeks.
The talks in Katowice will continue for another week, with some sort of declaration on the main principles of the Paris rulebook to be agreed at the end. But behind the scenes, delegates say politicians seem spooked by the yellow vests. Some are drawing the lesson that taxing carbon will put one’s political career at risk.
It isn’t only the yellow vests. Politicians are also aware of what happened recently in Australia, when a failed attempt to implement a carbon trading scheme was one of the reasons Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was booted out of office.
Environmental campaigners have been working furiously this week to try to disavow politicians of this notion. They are trying to argue that Macron’s problem is not the fact that he tried to tax carbon emissions, it’s instead the way that he did it