The public policy of sustainable development: innovation for a real utopia

Date: 2014
L'innovation politique au service d'une utopie concrète
Article Index

Energy transition: 'one of the few areas where utopia can be a major mobilizing project', Andreas Goergen, 2013

Andreas Goergen, Director at Siemens-France, quoted in Le Nouvel Observateur, No 2,563 from 19th December 2013


In the proper sense of the word, a utopia is an intellectual construct of an ideal civil society. According to Régis Messac, it is the representation 'of an ideal world where all troubles and wrongs of the present society have been solved and rectified'. Viewed in this way, sustainable development can be classified as one example of a utopian vision. Indeed, the concept of sustainable development describes a society that is economically prosperous, environmentally protected and socially equitable, the governance of which involves all concerned groups on the basis of shared principles. In all respects, it is indeed a modern utopia, but a utopia that Ernst Bloch would have described as concrete, insofar as it requires radical changes, such as changes in modes of production and consumption, or our relationship with energy, and also that many of these changes are required urgently in our everyday economic, political and social lives, while others can occur more gradually.


Historically, it is rare for states to attempt to implement utopian intellectual constructs. Yet this is the objective of sustainable development. Every UN member state has adopted the Rio Agenda, the Action Agenda of the Johannesburg Summit (2002) and more recently, the World We Want document (2012). The latter provides a terminology with a flavour of utopia in a world that is otherwise dominated by market forces, whether of goods, services or capital, which is unsuitable for the political constructivism that the document's title suggests. The adoption of these agendas requires each country to strive to address sustainable development through its public policies and to make it the dominant and structuring inspiration. The UN system and its components, as well as the regional organizations, are also facing this requirement. It is this very ambition that sometimes creates doubt over the realism of the sustainable development project. Is it possible to believe that countries and the international organizations they have created could advance in a controlled manner towards the resolution of existing conflicts, enabling societies to edge closer to a harmonious world that is reconciled with nature? The specificity of sustainable development as a type of concrete utopia is the presence of states at the heart of its implementation, which is unlike many other utopian visions that would develop against, alongside or even without the action of states.


However, sustainable development should represent a radical change in the paradigm, the political vision and also in practices. Through its integrated, systemic, holistic, participatory and inclusive approach, to cite some of terms commonly associated with it, sustainable development aims to make decisions based on multi-disciplinary analyses that Edgar Morin has for a long time been calling for.

'Political reform alone, economic reform alone, educational reform alone, life reform alone, have been, are, and will be, doomed to failure. Each reform can only progress if others do. Reformation pathways are correlative, interactive, interdependent.' Edgar Morin, La Voie-Pour l'avenir de l'Humanité, 2011

To design, plan and implement public policies for sustainable development is clearly a significant challenge that requires political innovation at three levels: the overhaul of public institutions, the invention of new decision-making processes and the adoption of new types of public policy instruments. This chapter discusses examples from three geographic scales: a country, France; a region, the Mediterranean; and finally the global level where the UN and its agencies act.


Institutional innovations for sustainable development


Elinor Ostrom, professor of political science at Indiana University and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences, stressed the importance of institutions in the management of common pool resources. How should institutions be designed so that instead of reproducing the fragmentation of interests and aspirations within them, they could enable an integrative and systemic approach? An approach that bureaucratic systems have a tendency to suppress.


Institutions of the French Fifth Republic and their consideration of sustainable development


In France, the highlight of institutional innovation for sustainable development was in the formulation of the Ecological Pact during the 2007 presidential election. Inspired by the Ecology Watch Commission of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, this pact proposed: 'the introduction of a vice prime minister into government architecture, who would be ranked at number two in the government, with overall responsibility for sustainable development and a dedicated administration' (p. 44), a role that would be separate from the minister of ecology. The vice prime minister would be responsible for préfets. According to the Ecological Pact, this step would serve as a 'symbol, a guarantee and a keystone'.


The point here is not only to affirm the supremacy of sustainable development as a priority for public policy, but also to position its support at the highest level of coordination and arbitration. Through this objective, the proposal aims to address a classic question within the French Fifth Republic, namely that of the management of horizontal policy issues, which involves, to varying degrees, the entire government.


Traditionally, two institutional techniques could enable this objective to be achieved. The first technique is to assign an assistant minister - known as a delegate minister - to the prime minister, who is given responsibility for a broad range of issues. The delegate minister participates in the organization and coordination of the prime minister on matters in the field in question. This institutional and political approach has been tried and tested by the French Fifth Republic. However, from the perspective of the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, this option would not have attributed a sufficiently prestigious title to the position it was seeking to introduce, since a delegate minister has a lower rank than a full minister in the government hierarchy.


The second option - which is less political - is to create a body that supports the prime minister by providing momentum and coordination, although one that lacks proper arbitrational powers, which remain with the prime minister. This solution was implemented in the post-war period, with the creation of the Commissariat Général du Plan and again in 1963 with the Inter-ministerial Delegation for Territorial Planning and Regional Attractiveness (DATAR), two organizations that were effective and prestigious.

The Commissariat général du Plan was a French institution, existing between 1946 and 2006, with responsibility for economic planning. DATAR is an inter-ministerial administration that oversees the state's territorial planning policies and supports economic change by focusing on an aggressive approach to competitiveness.

However, these institutions belonged to an era of stable, powerful and respected technocracy: a situation that clearly no longer exists. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this institutional solution still looks the most appropriate.


The French presidential candidates of the time endorsed the bold proposals contained within the Ecological Pact during a public signing ceremony. Yet they both knew that the institutional innovation required for the creation of a deputy prime minister could not be implemented by the government system that had been in operation since 1958. There was a risk that such a proposal could cause disorder at the top of the state, where a diarchy existed. In addition, it was futile to attempt to take away the direct supervision of the Corps Préfectoral (state representatives responsible for department subdivisions) from the minister for home affairs.


It is also striking that Dominique Bourg (2011), a member of the Ecological Monitoring Committee that proposed this reform, admitted in his book Pour une VIe république écologique (For a sixth ecological Republic) that it would mean 'running the risk of governmental cacophony... or reducing the function of the vice prime minister to that of a communication device'.


The innovative proposal contained within the Ecological Pact has therefore been reduced to the creation of a minister of state in charge of ecology, energy and sustainable development, 'thus diverting the flagship proposal of the Ecological Pact' (Bourg, op. cit.). Indeed, even the largest possible ministry, headed by a minister of state, would not be able to cover all sustainable development issues; in addition, it would not have any powers of coordination or arbitration vis-à-vis other ministries, such as agriculture or finance for example. Consequently, the very concept of a sustainable development minister is questionable. The entirety of government must support this issue, driven by an organizational structure that is close to the prime minister.


It is therefore logical that in his recent proposals, Dominique Bourg has abandoned the Ecological Pact project to explore the pathways offered by other institutional innovations that would enable a detachment from everyday life to provide the opportunity to better address the long term, such as a president without operational responsibility but who would oversee matters that relate to the long term and the common good. This concept is akin to a republican version of the constitutional monarchies of Scandinavia and The Netherlands.


In addition to this executive-scale innovation, Dominique Bourg has proposed innovations at the legislative level, suggesting the creation of a chamber, an Assembly for the Long Term, which would have the right to veto legislation, a chamber composed of scientists and environmental experts, appointed from a list of suitable candidates. This chamber could be connected with a collège du futur (an institute for futures studies) that would be made up of independent researchers.


Marcel Gauchet has criticized these options, disagreeing with the idea that democracy is unable to take the long term into account, and has expressed his distrust in the possible erosion of representative democracy in favour of appointed experts, describing this approach as an 'institutional illusion' (Gauchet, 2011).


Nevertheless, in terms of sustainable development, it seems in France that the time for institutional innovation has now passed. With the creation of the Environmental Conference in 2012, it is the prime minister, in accordance with the most classic structural formations of the French Fifth Republic, who assumes the role of the coordinator and arbiter of government action in this area as in others: it is he or she that defines the government roadmap produced by the conference; he or she who signs the letters outlining the framework for each minister; and finally it is he or she that accounts for the implementation of the latter. Thus the governmental system can support sustainable development without the need for an institutional revolution.


Regional initiatives


The UN's Agenda 21 and the outcome document of the 2002 Earth Summit have prompted the regional authorities to take sustainable development into account. The UN responded by mandating the UN Regional Economic Commissions. This is a logical approach insofar as, in the wake of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Regional Economic Commissions have the vocation to address economic and social issues at the regional level, which is a classic UN approach.


Innovative initiatives have, however, been adopted for the building of common strategies for sustainable development in regional frameworks that were considered more appropriate: this was the case for the Baltic Sea States (the Baltic 21 sustainable development network) and the Mediterranean (where in 1996 the contracting parties to the Barcelona Convention established the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development).


The EU has also attempted to build its own sustainable development strategy by adopting the Gothenburg strategy in 2001, which was revised in 2005. It is striking to note, however, firstly that this strategy was not linked with the Lisbon strategy, which was adopted in 2000, revised in 2005 with a horizon of 2010, which sought to make the EU 'become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world' and secondly that the Gothenburg strategy will not have any results or follow up. The EU did not seek to use the issue of sustainable development in the production of political and strategic innovation. From an institutional point of view, sustainable development has no visibility.


From the UN Commission for Sustainable Development to the High Level Political Forum


At the overall level of the UN, the emergence of sustainable development did not initially generate institutional innovation. After the 1992 Rio Conference, the UN established, in a very classical manner, a subsidiary body called the Commission on Sustainable Development, which was attached to the ECOSOC and had only a relatively low status (a fact borne out by the lack of institutions and economic ministries involved). The work of the Sustainable Development Commission was dominated by environmental and natural resource issues but without much added value.


It was significant that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative that was launched at the Millennium Summit in 2000 took place without any links to the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development and only partially integrated sustainable development indicators. It was only after Rio+20 that the question of MDG integration with future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was directly raised in a post-2015 context.


The Rio+20 summit officially admitted the failure of the Commission on Sustainable Development. As a replacement, it was decided to create a High-Level Political Forum which - and this is a true innovation - would be linked with both the General Assembly and the ECOSOC, enabling sustainability issues from then on to be addressed in a political, social and economic framework. The High-Level Political Forum, which met for the first time on 25th September 2013, therefore presents itself as an original construction in the UN framework. Only time will tell under what conditions it will fulfil its ambitious mandate.


Searching for innovations in the decision-making process


Among the innovations required for sustainable development is to ensure a major role for the principle of stakeholder and public participation, a principle affirmed by the Rio Declaration, confirmed in multilateral treaties such as the Aarhus Convention

A particularly innovative text since it opens up rights to environmental information, participation and access to justice.

and implemented to varying degrees at local, national, regional and global levels.


France and the principle of participation


France deserves particular attention in terms of the principle of participation, which has been developed in this country with a real regard for political innovation. In a representative democracy, a system in which the flaws are well known, the exclusive political power tends to be reserved for executive/legislative authorities. How then can we build an innovative participatory system that expands the circle of actors without generating a new system that lacks proper representation?


In France, since the establishment of the Republic, participation has traditionally been ensured by well-proven techniques: consultative administration and the carrying out of public inquiries.


The system of committees or advisory boards in which we can include the Economic, Social and Environmental Council is well established. Each ministry (transport, education, family...) is flanked by one or several High Councils and Committees that represent relevant interests. These bodies provide opinions to ministers on issues under their jurisdiction. This system leads to the blinkering of ministries by the economic and social interest groups in their specific sector, along with the fragmentation of public interest. Since its inception, the Ministry of Environment has continued to replicate this system.


By the time of the post-war reconstruction of the French institution, the limitations inherent to this system had already been perceived. Jean Monnet and François Bloch-Lainé theorized on this issue and devised a concerted and horizontal approach that they put into practice (see In search of a concerted economy, Bloch-Lainé, 1964). It was a system that we would today label as a multi-stakeholder approach. On this basis, the Commissariat Général du Plan, which was established and led by Jean Monnet, implemented a coordinated economic and social plan between major social groups: business leaders, unions, government officials, public banks (at the time, almost all banks were public) within the framework of the commissions meeting at the Commissariat Général au Plan, away from sectoral ministries.


After the Fifth Plan (1965-1970), this approach was abandoned in favour of one that had more confidence in the market but was tempered by the bilateral dialogue between the political power and each interest group or category. With the emergence of sustainable development objectives in the early 2000s, there was a reconsideration of the idea of a multi-stakeholder partnership for the building of more inclusive public policies. However, this very limited enlargement of the consultative bodies to environmental NGOs was insufficient for the purposes of building the participatory processes required by sustainable development. It is in this context that the five-tiered governance of the Grenelle de l'Environnement (Grenelle Environment Round Table) (2007-2010) was conceived, which was an attempt to build a mechanism for the collective production of proposals for public policies for sustainable development, involving businesses, trade unions, local authorities, environmental groups and the state.


At the time, promoters and participants of the Grenelle's five-tiered governance regarded it as a truly innovative approach. It was designed as a dynamic and interactive process, in contrast with the static and formal nature of traditional consultative processes. Thus, the impression was given that things were taking shape, especially at the interface between agriculture and the environment, one of the main areas of conflict since 1980, both within the state and within the French territories.


In the political world, this favourable sentiment remained after the 2012 presidential elections. In January 2013, the Senate's Information Report No. 190 on the implementation of the Grenelle laws stated that: 'the new mode of governance has been the great success of the Grenelle'. However, since 2009 there has been strong criticism from a number of environmental NGOs, while other analyses were also more reserved. Bernard Kalaora and Chloe Vlassopoulos

Pour une sociologie de l'environnement, Champ Vallon, 2013

, quoting Daniel Boy

'Le Grenelle de l'environnement: une novation politique', RFAP, 2010

, considered that collegiality was present in the working groups and roundtables, but that it evaporated in the decision-making processes and that it was important to put into perspective 'the idea of ​​the innovativeness of the device, which in many ways is no different from what was once known as the Planning Commission.'


According to the Wahl report

In 2012, the Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy appointed Thierry Wahl, Inspector General of Finance, with the mission of establishing a diagnosis of the situation in France with regard to the commitments made ​​in the framework the Grenelle Environment.

into the Grenelle's quantitative indicators, some of the Grenelle's more substantive innovations - i.e. measures that do not consider environmental issues in the strict sense, but that focus on the shifting of production, transport or housing processes towards a more sustainable direction - were found wanting. The use of pesticides, which was to be reduced by 50% by 2018, remains stable at best, despite the introduction of the Ecophyto plan; the decline of the share of rail in freight transport has continued, despite the objectives; the thermal renovation of existing housing has not been implemented sufficiently; and organic farming is far from advancing at the planned rate. While the Grenelle certainly suffered from the impact of suddenly negative rhetoric of the then president, from the counter-offensives launched by lobbies and from the difficult economic climate, there remains the possibility that the process itself was insufficiently anchored in the social and territorial fabric for the long term. Furthermore, there was a lack of interest from the general population in a process that was ultimately restricted to a limited circle of experts. This indifference was revealed in the French newspaper La Croix, which publishes a barometer carried out by TNS Sofres (a market research group) on the concerns of the French population. In this survey, the environment dropped from fourth place in the list of people's priorities in January 2007, prior to the launch of the Grenelle, to seventh place in 2008 and then down to eighth in 2012. In 2011, 36% of poll respondents cited the environment as being amongst their top two concerns (usually second), a figure that fell to 27% in 2012.


There is a risk that the only legacy of the Grenelle will be a 'legislative monument' that Jean-Louis Borloo was once proud of, a monument that is today facing the 'shock of simplification' and a roadmap towards the 'modernization of environmental law'. Already in this regard, a 2013 order to facilitate construction operations is expected to enable the circumvention of ecological policies that were introduced or strengthened by the Grenelle laws.


For this vision of utopia to have taken on a concrete character, through the association of stakeholders, would have required the adoption of a political agenda and methods that were much more radically innovative than most governments, who are typically more concerned about communication and instantaneous political point-scoring, could have accepted or even imagined. On this matter, Marcel Gauchet in Le Debaté magazine said that 'the Grenelle de l'environnement was a very interesting experience, one in which we created an apparent consensus that was announced to great fanfare, but underneath it lay a massive unpopularity that emerged as soon as we moved towards measures that directly affected the lives of citizens, especially the carbon tax. This shift is instructive, first highlighting the limitations of media illusionism. These fugacious entailments have nothing to do with reasoned conviction; they easily turn into their opposite. Over the long term, the media machine is a machine that creates distrust... The shift of opinion has enabled the checking of whether the ecological technocracy had retained the defects of the other. The ingenuity of instruments cannot be an end in itself; ingenuity does not guarantee the way in which instruments will be understood and received by the population' (Gauchet, 2011). Indeed the societal approach based on social sciences was lacking in the Grenelle, which ignored the necessary involvement of citizens. The fact is that the main results of the Grenelle, which are two important laws, 250 decrees and some new tax categories, were clearly not enough to produce the expected social appropriation.


Addressing the citizen as much as the homo economicus


Confident in its analyses and the accuracy of its proposals, in particular in terms of taxation, the community of experts involved in political ecology or ecological politics tends to underestimate the societal dimensions of public action that has been reduced to the debatable concept of 'social acceptability'. In this respect, the institutions of the French Fifth Republic must bear a heavy responsibility because, in this area as in others, they promote decision-making processes that are technocratic, a fact that was illustrated by the way the establishment of a carbon tax was decided in 2010... and then failed.


After 2012, the breakdown of the Grenelle into the Transition Ecologique (Ecological Transition) and the Conférence Environnementale (Environmental Conference), the latter having a more limited spectrum than the former, is a lesson learned from an exercise that ultimately generated a lot of frustration.


Meanwhile, the state has not renounced the traditional consultative structures, which it has extended to the national policy for sustainable development. This process started with a rather bold innovation, the creation of the Commission Française du Développement Durable (French Commission for Sustainable Development), established in 1993 as an independent body chaired by the famous academic, Jacques Testard, the state has since pursued this path with the establishment, successively, of the Conseil National du Développement Durable (National Council for Sustainable Development) (2003) and the Conseil National du Développement Durable et du Grenelle de l'Environnement (2010) and finally, in 2012 the Conseil National de la Transition Ecologique (National Council for the Ecological Transition) (CNTE), which, according to the French administrative traditions, is chaired by the ecology minister. This list of bodies is symbolic of the chronic instability that characterizes public action, an instability that has become a major weakness of French public policies.


If we examine the general question of public participation beyond the Grenelle, we note there has been some undeniable innovations with: the creation of a public debate around an independent body, such as the National Commission for Public Debate; the development of collaborative systems following the 1996 publication of the Charter of the Concertation, by Corinne Lepage, the then French Minister of Ecology; the strengthening of the right to information and citizen participation including in legislative documents on the environment that are being prepared; and finally the possibility of questioning, whenever there is a dispute, the constitutionality of laws that oppose the Environment Charter, which enhances the value of this Charter that was adopted in 2005. Clearly, compared to the past, there is now more transparency on public projects, better information upstream and better consultation. However, the shock of simplification and the cyclical desire to build more and to develop faster leads to the temptation to circumvent these rights and to do so by means of statutory instruments, i.e. without parliamentary debate or transparency. Thus, the limited number of French societal innovations that have occurred remain fragile because they are considered by planners and many politicians as creators of obstacles and delays.


The UN and the promotion of stakeholders


This development can be found in the participatory processes at the global level. Within the UN, the emergence of a new concept of the stakeholder goes together with a multi-stakeholder approach, which is intended to completely renew what was the participation mode of UN observers. In this regard, the first Rio Conference was a milestone with the drawing together of environmental NGOs and development NGOs. Ten years after the 2002 Earth Summit, it was local authorities, as well as businesses, organized since 1995 within the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) that were encouraged by the UN to participate. The UN Global Compact, which was launched in 2000, is supposed to extend this commitment from the business world into concrete actions for sustainable development.


Therefore, there are now large numbers of non-state actors, who seek to be heard in these huge circles that are the Conferences of the Parties of the major conventions and the sustainable development conferences.


At Rio+20, the mode of participation of non-state actors underwent a significant innovation with the Brazilian initiative of Sustainable Development Dialogues. This forum for civil society actors was held before the official conference, with international institutions and governments being allowed access as observers. Ten sustainable development themes were discussed during the debates that were broadcast live via the UN website, the dialogues were preceded by an online consultation that was technically facilitated by a system of translation into 40 languages, ​​which led to voting on recommendations, which were then transmitted to the official conference.


Indeed such recommendations have been adopted and transmitted. But obviously, it was not reflected in the final text, The Future We Want, which had been developed in the framework of preparatory conferences (Prep Com) and finalized by the representatives of states prior to the official conference. Under these conditions, the heads of state have only endorsed the work of their own experts without being able to consider the Dialogues. Thus, beyond an appearance of major participation, the RIO+20 Summit was in reality totally dominated by negotiations between governments regarding the final text.


Finally, the most active contribution of civil society has been embodied by the abundance of side events which, through parallel pathways, have made the initiatives known, they have informed other stakeholders and enriched sustainable development issues. Basically, in recent years, the major innovation of these intergovernmental processes has been the promotion of this parallel activity of remarkable richness and diversity that fully expresses the idea of ​​participation and the activity of non-governmental actors.


An example of participation in the Mediterranean


In the regional context, the Mediterranean for example, the idea of ​​participation is expressed by the innovative composition of the Mediterranean Commission on Sustainable Development, created in the framework of the Barcelona Convention. This convention represents on an equal basis 21 member states, the EC and representatives of local authorities, businesses and environmental NGOs. At present, despite this innovative feature, the results have been inconclusive in the sense that businesses have not invested in this body, economic and development ministries have stayed away, while civil society is absent.


The participation of civil society raises unresolved issues. How can we put together the different groups under the same umbrella, while sometimes expecting them to speak with a single voice? Should we make a clearer distinction between actors that although are possibly non-governmental, nevertheless have powers (the economic power of businesses, the political power of local authorities and even the spiritual power of churches) from others that can only argue for their right to expression? The term civil society is one that divides opinion in the sense that it seeks to encompass entities that should not necessarily be included. Regarding development and environmental NGOs, there is a range of different types; some participate in institutional processes such as the Rio Dialogues, others distance themselves and prefer alternative forums, as was seen in Rio with the Peoples Summit for Social and Environmental Justice. It is essential that in the organization of participatory processes, the UN does not seek to remove diversity and pluralism.


Innovative instruments for sustainable development public policies


Can a public policy for sustainable development act merely through the use of traditional public policy instruments, such as the setting of rules, standards and procedures, accompanied by mechanisms of enforcement and the necessary budgetary interventions to achieve objectives, all of which take the strategic form of plans, programmes and strategies?


In France, the policy of environmental protection has from the outset, under the ancien régime and after 1789

Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud, Histoire de la pollution industrielle, EHESS Editions, 2010.

, has made full and even massive use of so-called policing instruments.


Monitoring and measuring pollution, authorizing, prohibiting, regulating and suppressing are all part of the basic vocabulary of environmental action. The same applies in the area of hunting, which is strictly controlled, or of water pollution.


More recently, even if originally proposed in 1972 by the OECD, it is economic instruments that have been put forward in the form of taxes, royalties and permit markets, with the idea of ​​penalizing negative externalities so that prices correctly reflect the cost of pollution, giving the polluter an incentive to reduce the pollution. Through the equalization of the marginal costs of depollution, these instruments are expected to enable more economically efficient choices in terms of investment in pollution prevention.


Are economic instruments the preferred tools of sustainable development policies?


With the emergence of sustainable development, these economic approaches, along with ecological taxation and market instruments have gained strength and visibility.


With regard to environmental taxation, we must distinguish two categories: the first of these is the traditional type, which uses funds collected from polluters to provide financial resources to fight against pollution. This is a relatively common mechanism in France and it is one that cannot be regarded as innovative. For example, from 1950 the French Special Road Investment Fund, which is no longer in existence, was financed by taxes on fuel. This was also the original basis for the funding of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and continues to be the way that Eco-Emballages operates.


The second category, which is more innovative, is the establishment of taxes or fees that are not designed to feed an intervention fund, but to go into the general budget by setting the levy at a sufficient amount to influence the behaviour of economic actors. If these revenues are substantial, we can imagine that these funds could replace some taxes that are regarded as undesirable because they increase the cost of labour for example. This is a case of searching for a double dividend. A small number of countries have started to opt for this second approach to taxation.


While traditional environmental taxation, such as fees allocated to water agencies or TGAP (French general tax on polluting activities), is more acceptable and produces results in terms of investments; an incentive-type taxation, which is intended to guide behaviour, faces many difficulties in its installation, especially when it targets consumer behaviour with a view to obtaining far reaching results over a long time frame.


Again, we must distinguish two cases: when taxes aim to discourage consumption or practices that are harmful to consumers themselves (tobacco, alcohol, sugary drinks), taxpayers can easily understand the merits of taxation, since the return in terms of health and individual well-being can be tangible. It is very different when the tax - which is truly innovative in this case - is presented as a contribution to the common good, the climate for example. Here, the route is more distant and more complicated for taxpayers, who are suspicious by nature. In addition, environmental taxes struggle to address the sustainability criteria in their demand for social equity. The taxation of households in regards to their pollution and consumption of natural resources reinforces the proportion of consumption taxes, taxes that are non-progressive and regarded as unfair. To bypass this regressive dimension, the taxes concerned, the carbon tax for example, are accompanied by exemption and reimbursement mechanisms, the complexity of which negatively affects their visibility. As put in La Tribune on 13th November 2013: 'eco-tax: a dream for economists, a nightmare for tax experts.'


A genuine innovation in terms of economic instruments has been the French bonus-malus (bonuses and penalties) car scheme which, basing itself on the CO2 emissions of new vehicles, had the double advantage of ecological incentives and equity. Unfortunately, the scheme was incorrectly calibrated, and the income derived from the penalties never balanced the generous bonuses, and according to the French Court of Auditors, the system cost about €2 billion during 2009 to 2011. The rebalancing that has occurred since has ended a system that was ultimately equivalent to a net subsidy from the state for the purchase of cars, at a time when public transport was accumulating investment delays, particularly in the Ile de France. Of course the incessant changing of the scheme had a negative impact on citizen confidence.


In conclusion, public authorities should take time to evaluate, explain and to allow public debate, and should draw inspiration from the OECD recommendations on techniques for the introduction and increase of ecological tax.

Taxation, Innovation and the Environment, OECD, 2010

At the very least, we should use different policy approaches in the creation of taxes for businesses and those for households.


Environmental taxation can progress only if it takes into account simultaneously the three pillars of sustainable development. On this issue, Terra Nova (French left-wing think tank) in a note from 14th October 2013, highlighted the thesis of Emmanuel Courbet who connected the necessary rise in energy taxation with a more comprehensive tax reform to 'address (...) the issues of competitiveness, ecological transition and redistribution'. This is what Sweden attempted in 1990/1991, by linking rises in energy taxation to the decrease in taxes on labour and personal income. However, this measure has also made the taxation less progressive and thus fostered income inequality.