All posts by Mariana Clare

PhD Student researching numerical fluid and sediment transport models at Imperial College London

Les Gilets jaunes

Last weekend marked the 32nd week of protests in France. We look at how did it start; what did it become; and what next for the movement?

In October 2018, a movement began on social media in France. It was called the ‘Gilets jaunes’ after the French name for the high visibility yellow jackets which are compulsory by French law in case of a breakdown. On 17th November 2018, they began the first of a series of widespread protests across the streets of France, even spreading into parts of Belgium (see Figure 1). Whilst news of the protests has almost disappeared in the UK media, they have continued every Saturday since ‘Acte I’ on 17th November (see Figure 2). Last weekend marked ‘Acte XXXII’ and although the number of protesters is decreasing, the protests continue. In fact, the protests last weekend were the largest since mid-May. Figure 2 shows two different numbers of protesters, because organisers are increasingly disputing official numbers, and included the protesters from the ‘March of the Century’ climate change protest, part of the protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, in the number of protesters for ‘Acte XVIII’.

Figure 1: Map of ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests on 17th November 2018. Source: Connexion France

This series of protests is a prime case study of how well-intentioned environmental policies can actually enhance socio-economic divisions. But how did a demonstration against a fuel tax quickly become a protest about French President, Emmanuel Macron, and his government?

The roots of the controversy

Figure 2: Data sourced from Le Figaro and Le Nombre Jaune facebook page

The ‘Gilets jaunes’ movement started in response to a scheduled rise in the ecological fuel tax in January 2019. This ‘eco-tax’ was first introduced by the French government in 2014 and was scheduled to rise routinely every year until 2022. The aim of the tax was to finance France’s transition to green energy. Almost 20% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions in 2016 came from road transport and thus cutting fuel emissions is vital for France to meet its CO2 reduction targets. In fact, France has played a key role in getting all EU environment ministers to agree to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars by 35% by 2030 compared to 2021 levels

In France, fuel tax accounts for approximately 60% of fuel costs, similar to that in other European countries and is split into two components: the TICPE (the so-called ‘eco-tax’) and TVA (French VAT). In a TV interview on 5th November 2018, Bruno le Maire (French Minister for Finance) defended the rise in the TICPE, by saying it would allow the government to finance its new energy transition measures. However, the provision of TICPE tax is in fact precisely defined in French law, with most going to state and regional budgets. The Minister’s misleading suggestion opened the policy up to criticism and resulted in public mistrust; some journalists commented that the eco-tax was simply lining the pockets of the state.

A study conducted last year showed that fuel prices in France have more than tripled since 1980, but fuel purchasing power has remained stable and fuel efficiency has been steadily increasing. However, in the year before the ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests, diesel prices rose by 23% and petrol prices by 15%, primarily due to rising global oil prices. In September 2018, the French government announced that a further TICPE increase for January 2019 (see Figure 3) which would have meant that since 2015, the ’eco tax’ on diesel would have risen by €0,22/l and on petrol by €0,10/l. According to the Directorate-General for Energy and Climate, these TICPE increases will cost the average French household up to €300 per year.

Figure 3: Annual increase in TICPE including the scheduled increase for 2019. Source: Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire
Growing discontent in ‘Peripheral France’

Although the amount of TICPE is universal across the country, critics argue that its increase has a disproportionately negative effect on those living in suburban and rural areas. In these regions, there have been cuts to public transport and growing levels of urban/suburban sprawl. Without a car, those outside the big cities would struggle to work, take children to school or even buy food. According to Christophe Guilluy, a human geography researcher, “Economic growth happens in big globalised cities, but the working classes no longer live there. … They live in a ‘peripheral France’, characterised by weak economic growth, high unemployment and high anxiety.” This environmental ‘fuel-tax’ has thus become a symbol of the rift between the ‘rural poor’ and the ‘city elite’.

The feeling of inequality was further reinforced by the government’s actions at the beginning of the crisis. Initially, the Minister for Finance Bruno le Maire defended the ‘eco-tax’ rise by saying the government was offering financial incentives to move away from diesel cars and an ‘ecological bonus’ to buy and rent electric cars. However, opponents argued this was yet another move designed to help the ‘elite’ and of little help to families struggling to make ends meet at the end of the month.

Macron’s measures – attempts to solve an unfolding crisis

It was not until the 5th of December, after three weeks of protests, that the President made his first attempt to curb the movement. He announced the significant step that the ‘eco-tax’ would be scrapped,  a quick policy change that reflected the President’s perception of the severity of the threat posed by the violent crowd. The fact that it was still viewed as ‘too little, too late’ by the ‘Gilets jaunes’ illustrates the deeper social issues at the root of the protests, which go beyond the ‘eco-tax’.

When a few days later, Macron announced a €100 increase in the minimum wage and tax-free overtime pay, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ were equally unconvinced by his message. They claimed that he was giving them ‘crumbs’, instead of the systemic changes they campaigned for. Notably, he ruled out reimposing a direct wealth tax on all those with assets over €1.3 million, known as the ISF. Ending the ISF had been a key pillar of his electoral campaign and its reintroduction was now at the core of the protesters’ demands.

Amid continuing protests and violent clashes between the police and the ‘Gilets jaunes’ each weekend, Macron, under pressure, launched a National Debate (‘grand débat’) on the 14th January 2019. During this two-month-long listening exercise, 10,000 forums were held across France to survey the public on the four main themes which had emerged from the protests: taxes and spending; democracy and citizenship; organisation of the state and public services; and finally ecological transformation. This strategy had proven reliable to the President during his presidential campaign; he had built his manifesto based on the ‘Grande Marche’, a mass door-to-door survey of the French electorate. However, this time, the dialogue was restricted to certain pre-selected topics, raising suspicions he would try to limit the scope of the debate to a preexisting reform agenda. 

Nevertheless, in terms of generating engagement, the ‘Débat’ was a success. Apart from the forums, French citizens could make their opinions heard through a variety of channels, including online where the Debate’s website received 2 million submissions. While the high response rates could have been a promising sign, critics point out that the audience failed to represent the sociological traits of the ‘Gilets jaunes’. Notably, according to a study, 55% of the debate attendees claimed that they found it easy to make ends meet and 53% were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. This is in stark contrast with the protesters, who predominantly struggle to make a living in France.

Figure 4: ‘Gilets jaunes’ protestors in Paris. Source: Daniel Briot

The day after the debate ended, Acte XVIII was accompanied by the worst rioting in Paris since December, resulting in buildings being vandalised and torched. Decrees were enacted across France to forbid protests which could become violent and anyone found in breach of these rules was fined. Even though these measures resulted in a drop in protester numbers, the remaining, defiant ‘Gilets jaunes’ criticised the policies as ‘dictatorial’.

On 25th April, Macron announced a further reform package including tax cuts for the middle class, education reforms, no school or hospital closures until the end of his term in 2022 and proportional elections for around 20% of seats in parliament. Although this was not enough to calm the core of the ‘Gilets jaunes’, who claimed that the president hadn’t listened to them, since then, the number of protesters – whilst still significant – has been decreasing as the movement continues to lose momentum. There has also been a considerable shift in the public’s attitude to the protests; according to pollsters Elabe, by April, 60% of French citizens wanted them to stop, in contrast to in November, when 75% of the public still supported them.  

A fragmented movement

Although the series of protests started as a reaction to the introduction of the ‘eco tax’, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ cannot be defined as the anti-ecology movement the French government originally called them. In fact, Geneviève Legay, a symbolic figure of the ‘Gilet jaunes’, described herself as ‘an ecologist, feminist, anti-racist activist’. The movement quickly transformed into an anti-Macron revolt fuelled not by a resistance to climate action, but anger against increasing inequalities in a country led by a former banker (labelled the ‘president of the rich’). Arguably, the fight against capitalism creates a strong ideological link between the ecological movement and the ‘Gilets jaunes’. As François Boulot, a ‘Gilet jaune’ who spoke at a climate change protest put it, ‘we will not be able to operate the ecological transition without an equitable wealth redistribution’. 

The diversity within the movement means that not all of its followers share this view. The right-wing populist sympathisers among its ranks tend not to see climate change as an issue. This lack of unity means that there have been clear challenges to turning the movement into a political party from early on. The political party ‘Les Emergents’, formed by ‘Gilets jaunes’ protesters, has struggled. Several of the founding members of ‘Les Emergents’ resigned in April, accusing the party leader Jacline Mouraud of ‘lack of transparency’. Despite their original plans, the party did not have any candidates in the European Parliament elections. It is also questionable how the French would react to a political movement rooted in the violent protests the majority of citizens are tired of and containing within it radical and anarchist groups like the ‘ultra-yellows’ and the Black bloc

Long-term impact in France and the world

For Macron, the protests have shown the failure of his top-down policies implemented without consulting the public. He was forced to recognise his responsibility for the situation and promised a more human, less arrogant style of governance, started by the National Debate. However, despite certain concessions, he refused to change the overarching orientation of his presidency and stood by the measures that got him elected. Macron’s willingness to make gestures towards the ‘Gilets jaunes’ and the extreme violence which continues to be shown by the radical core of the movement has led to a rebound in his popularity (which has risen from 23 per cent at the start of the movement to just under 30 per cent in April). However, it remains to be seen whether he can win another election with these policies in 2022.

The ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests have shown that shifting to a low-carbon economy will not be a painless process and cannot be handled separately from issues of social equality. The outburst of popular anger against the political elite rightly scared the government and had grave consequences. Over the course of six months, 11 people died and more than 4200 were injured during the protests. The ‘Gilets jaunes’ impact was felt at an international level; protesters donned yellow vests in Serbia, Belgium and Spain, among other countries, using the symbol in their fight for a diverse range of causes. Regardless of whether they eventually succeed in entering party politics, in the past seven months, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ have made an impact on France and the world. The ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests foreshadow a future in which climate and energy struggles will play a key role in shaping the political landscape.

Mariana Clare – PhD student researching numerical fluid and sediment transport models at Imperial College London

Rozi Harsanyi

Rozi Harsanyi – Graduate Management Trainee currently working in Communications and Public Affairs and the Registry at Imperial College London.

Recycling plastic bags won’t stop climate change

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending the recording of the 70th anniversary of the BBC Radio 4 programme “Any questions?” in the House of Commons (podcast available here) where a panel of guests were asked pre-selected questions by the studio audience. To mark the special occasion and look towards the future of the programme, all the members of the panel and the studio audience were aged under 30. Given this, the first question for the panel was: “Will our generation be the one to finally take decisive action on climate change?”. As a member of the Mathematics of Planet Earth CDT, I was intrigued. The first answers from the panel included an insightful remark from Jordan Stephens, a member of hip-hop duo Rizzlekicks, suggesting the problem is posed incorrectly. He pointed out that people always say we’re saving the planet, but actually the planet will survive and what we’re doing is saving ourselves. The last person to answer the question was Conservative MP Tom Pursglove. His response was to talk about personal responsibility, the need to cut down on litter, and the current government’s policy on cutting the use of plastic bags and micro plastic beads.

Figure 1:  Committee Room 14, the location of the programme and, incidentally, where the results of the Conservative Party no confidence vote concerning Theresa May were announced exactly two months later. Source: Wietze Beukema

To put it in context, this debate came two days after the publication of the IPCC report stating that even if we meet current pledges to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the world is still heading towards 3°C of warming over pre-industrial levels by 2100. According to the report, to limit warming to 1.5°C (the limit defined in the Paris climate agreement) would require an annual average investment in the energy system of around $2.4 trillion. Hence, it is predominately the energy sector including energy generation and usage in transport and industry (and arguably the agricultural sector) that needs to change. On the other hand, recycling plastic bags or even cutting plastic waste entirely has no real meaningful impact on climate change and it is important to be aware of the differences between the two issues. Plastic waste is clearly a huge environmental issue; just look at the massive plastic islands in the ocean. Animals can get trapped in packaging or die from ingesting plastic. Moreover, it would be unfair not to mention a recent study from the University of Hawaii, which suggests that decaying plastic may result in methane emission into the atmosphere. However, compared to the contribution from burning fossil fuels, that of plastic waste is insignificant.

Figure 2:  A vast mass of plastic stretching for miles in the Caribbean Sea. Source: BBC

By confusing the two issues of plastic waste and climate change, we can think that by solving one, we are also solving the other. In fact, in a recent article in the BBCGuy Singh-Watson, a green campaigner and founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, argued that “the almost religious fervour – of some of our customers in (being) anti-plastic can actually create problems…The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change – and anything that distracts attention from that is potentially dangerous.” I would argue further that the problem is in fact worse because people think that by reducing their use of plastic, they are also helping to slow down climate change. By coincidence, a week after attending the recording of ‘Any questions?’, I listened to the podcast “Sept Milliards de Voisins” where they discussed the possibility of living without plastic (podcast available here in French). The presenter asked Bruno Tassin, Director of Research at l’Ecole des Ponts Paris-Tech and a specialist in dealing with plastic in the environment, how much plastic waste contributes to climate change. Tassin explained that although plastic usage does result in greenhouse gas emission, this is mainly when the oil to make plastic is extracted and refined. This is a common problem with resources (see a previous article (How renewable are renewables really) on this topic). The fact the presenter asked the question is another example of a respected public figure getting confused between the two separate issues of plastic waste and climate change.

The most concerning aspect of this climate change misconception in the “Any questions?” debate was that it was coming from an MP who is from my generation, and young enough to have been taught about climate change at school. I am not trying to make a political point. The response from the Labour MP on the panel, Danielle Rowley, was a very open meaningless statement that Labour “are committed to being a lot stronger on tackling climate change” without any specific strategy or commitments. I’m sure many MPs across the political spectrum also think that recycling and reducing waste has some impact on climate change. Perhaps more shockingly, some of them, including Graham Stringer MP, a member of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, do not believe that climate change is man-made (see article in the Independent). Whilst this is disheartening, we should use this as motivation to be better informed than those in power, which is not difficult!

To return to the original question, about whether our generation will indeed be the one to take decisive action on climate change, my honest answer would have to be, I hope so but it is by no means certain. Unfortunately, the recent IPCC report emphasises that if we leave it to the next generation, it will be too late. I remain optimistic that, as the people educated about climate change at school begin to take positions of power, they will take more meaningful action. From the admittedly small sample audience present at the “Any questions?” recording, it was clear that my generation care about mitigating climate change. However, in order to do this, it is important that we keep ourselves well informed about the issues and keep our eye on the main goal: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are plenty of ways to do this, including many suggested in the recent IPCC report, such as eating less meat, buying a fuel efficient (or electric) car or travelling by train instead of flying. So please, continue to reduce your plastic use, but don’t think this means you are taking action on climate change.

How renewable are renewables really?

Renewables are on the rise. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts global capacity of wind, solar and hydropower will grow 43% in the next five years. Such technologies are called renewable since their source of energy (e.g. sun, wind or flowing water) naturally replenish themselves. This can be contrasted with fossil-fuel generation, whose fuels (e.g. coal or gas) can be depleted and take millions of years to regenerate.

The classification into renewable and non-renewable refers only to the process of electricity generation. Over their whole lifecycle, renewable technologies use resources that can both be depleted and lead to greenhouse gas emissions in their extraction process. Furthermore, they need a lot of them: per unit of electricity, wind turbines require 6-14 times more iron and 11-40 times more copper than fossil fuels. Meeting one quarter of global electricity demand from wind by 2050 would require an additional 1 million onshore and 100,000 offshore wind turbines, and the IEA estimates that decreasing energy related greenhouse gas emissions by 50% doubles the material requirements per unit of electricity. Obtaining the additional materials required may negatively impact the environment in their extraction and in their processing.

Furthermore, renewable energy production requires materials that may be scarce, toxic, or required for domestic electronic devices. An important example is the lithium and cobalt required for lithium ion batteries. The demand for these is expected to grow exponentially because of their use in portable electronics, electric cars and storing renewable electricity (see a previous article on this topic). Both metals are available only in a small number of countries, with cobalt a particular concern; more than half of world supply comes from DR Congo, a country infamous for its political instability and plagued by civil war. The combination of high demand and supply uncertainty has even lead to deep-sea mining pilots, worrying many environmentalists. Clearly, the environmental impacts of a massive renewable transition should be considered carefully — we must be careful that one source of environmental damage (greenhouse gases emissions) is not substituted for another.

Figure 1: Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity generated for different renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Source: IPCC, 2011 Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (Chapter 9).

In this backdrop, shrinking renewable technologies’ material requirements is a key priority. Many approaches fall under the age-old mantra Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. One strategy is to design new technologies that require fewer scarce resources. The lithium ion battery is itself an improvement on its lead acid predecessor, and the race to build a new battery, free of lithium and cobalt, is in full swing. Another is to increase the effective lifecycle of existing technologies. As everyone with an old mobile phone recognises, battery performance declines over time, and this is usually the first reason to discard an otherwise working model. The same applies to wind power: the harsh conditions experienced by turbine blades, including lightning strikes, storms and ice, decreases the efficiency of wind turbines 60% in their first 15 years of operation. Replacing blades periodically or making them more resilient lowers material requirements, but comes with considerable technical challenges.

A third option is to recycle materials. The first generation of large-scale renewable projects built in the 1990s are reaching the end of their lifetimes, meaning millions of tonnes of old wind farm and solar panel materials will be decommissioned. Estimates suggest that by 2030, there will be 300,000 tonnes of waste from old wind turbines annually in Europe alone, and most of these parts are made from costly unreformable plastic that cannot be melted down or given a second life. Reusing components both reduces demand for mining and prevents costly materials ending up in landfill sites. Examples include a planned recycling centre in Texas where old wind turbines are cut up and given a second life in composite panels and a French chemical firm building blades from reformable plastic. In the EU, research funding and targeted landfill bans have lead to pilot projects into the recycling of solar panels and batteries. Some of these batteries have even been given second lives in grid-scale storage. However, recent attempts have been slow to get off the ground, and for many of these technologies, mining new materials remains cheaper than recycling. Furthermore, recycled materials typically cannot be reused in renewable technologies again and must be sold to other sectors.

Many of the issues outlined above relate to the fact that these technologies are still in their infancy. Fossil fuel technologies have been the dominant energy source for more than a century, and trillions of dollars have been invested to maximise their efficiencies. If and when such sums start being spent on renewables, technologies are expected to improve significantly. These improvements have already sent the price of renewables plummeting, and they may make the renewable resource question disappear altogether in the future.

Furthermore, despite the hefty material requirements, a study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology estimates that the planet has enough resources to support the large-scale transition to renewables, and it’s not the case that fossil fuels don’t use any materials for their infrastructure — imagine, for example, the amount of metal and energy required to build on oil rig. In terms of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, renewables are a clear improvement on non-renewables (see Figure 1). However, having enough resources for the foreseeable future does not mean this will be the case forever.

Becoming a truly renewable society requires not just the adoption of renewable technologies, but also their improvement. Otherwise, it may be that in solving one sustainability issue, we are creating another.

Adriaan Hilbers – PhD student researching Mathematics of Power Systems at Imperial College London

Mariana Clare – PhD student researching numerical fluid and sediment transport models at Imperial College London