If You Are Rich You Can Pollute

Sweeping government measures intended to protect the environment often put an economic strain on the poor.

When I moved to Latvia in 2008, one of my first memories was going to a local supermarket and noticing people leaving the store carrying groceries in their hands.  One carrying an apple, another with a carton of kefir and a sandwich. When I got to the register I was charged a few cents for each plastic bag. Encountering the pay-for-plastic-bag policy for the first time, I thought it was a good idea as I paid the nominal amount. Later that day, at work, I remarked about it to a local staff member.  He told me, “Well, if you are rich you can pollute.”

Fast forward to 2018, when Greece (finally) decided to do the same with plastic shopping bags. I bought a few things at a small family-owned grocery store and, having forgotten to bring my own bag, was ready to pay for the grocery bag.  However, as I was about to do so, the owner of the shop told me, “I’m not part of that scam, I’ll always give out my bags for free. Take as many as you want.”

Neither my Latvian colleague nor the Greek shopkeeper were directly thinking about the impact of reducing plastic bags could have on the environment.  They were, though, not only aware of but also economically affected by how measures made to protect the environment often disproportionately burden those in lower income brackets.

Photo taken by Remi Jouan

French Fuel Tax Protests

Earlier this year President Macron promised to “Make our Planet Great Again” and introduced a slew of measures, one of which was a fuel tax.  According to Euronews, this saw, “the price of diesel increase by 23% in a year, petrol by 15% and [made the cost of both] among the highest in Europe.”

This sparked the “Yellow Vest” movement in the rural areas of France as a protest against the tax and made its way to the cities. The protests turned violent and we have been witnessing several weeks of clashes between protesters and police. Reactions varied from President Trump praising them as being a protest against the Paris Climate Change Agreement, while others such as Neera Tanden, of the influential left-leaning Center of American Progress think tank tweeted that “[she doesn’t] understand why any progressive is cheering French protesters amassing against a carbon tax.” Neither of them really considering the economic burden environmental measures could place on low-income groups.

As the protests have unfolded, the movement seems to not be a public outcry for or against ecological conservation but a rebellion against what people see as social and economic injustices. The protests forced Macron to first delay and then scrap the eco-tax from the 2019 budget.  

Alternatives to Burdening the Poor

Most countries are at least considering, if not implementing, measures on climate change.  However, the recent events in France signal that the solutions shouldn’t disproportionately burden the poor.  Groups such as C40 Cities, which is “committed to delivering on the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement” combine the current and short-term term goals of inhabitants’ well being with the medium and long-term targets of combating climate change.  

Other environmental measures which do not unfairly burden the poor are California’s clean vehicle assistance program, and  Spain’s goal to phase out coal, just two examples of many that are in place. Plans elsewhere include public investment in green energy projects, greener regulations for new building construction and even subsidies for people who buy electric vehicles.

As Joss Garman, the U.K. director of the European Climate Foundation  recently stated in an op-ed piece for Politico, ”Any leader who is serious about addressing climate change must also be serious about getting permission from their electorate to do so.”

A recent study by the European Social Survey showed that the vast majority of Europeans believe in climate change, human influence upon it and that the effect of climate change will be severe. However, at the end of the day, most are more worried about the monetary cost of fuel over the environmental cost of fuel.


Cover Photo by Thomas Bresson



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