There is little doubt among scientists and economists that carbon taxes are needed to reduce fossil fuel dependence. The question is how to design them to cushion the blow on the most vulnerable.
PARIS — A pastry maker from northern France, Vincent Picard describes himself as a “militant ecologist” — one who also joined the so-called Yellow Vest protests set off by an increase in France’s gasoline tax.
If those two impulses seem to conflict, Mr. Picard, 32, explains that he has to drive to work every day. The nearest train station is 35 minutes. The trains run only once an hour, and soon perhaps even more infrequently as the government looks to save costs on rural routes.
“I am conscious that we have reached the end of fossil fuels and that we have to modify our habits,” he said. “They are asking us to be mobile, to adapt, but this cannot be done from one day to the next. You have to continue to live.”
How to design smart policies to help people live through that transition away from fossil fuels is a challenge facing not just France, but nearly all industrialized countries committed to pulling the world back from the cliff’s edge of catastrophic climate change .
France’s cancellation of a fuel tax increase this week in the wake of increasingly violent protests signaled the perils and political headwinds governments in wealthier countries may face when that transition is ill-conceived.
There is little doubt among scientists and economists that putting a price on carbon — and a high one at that — is essential in the effort to reduce fossil fuel dependence. The question is how to design a carbon tax — and how to cushion the blow for the most vulnerable.
Many analysts point out that President Emmanuel Macron’s government succeeded in crafting a tax that wasn’t all that environmentally smart or politically deft.
The French have been far more tolerant than most societies in accepting high taxes on gasoline and diesel fuels already. The cost of a gallon of gas in France is about $6 or more — taxes accounting for about 60 percent of that — compared with about $3 on average in the United States, where high fuel taxes have been a nonstarter.
The government’s tax, which was written into the law before Mr. Macron was elected, was the tipping point for hard-pressed families already laboring under some of Europe’s highest tax burdens, and not just for fuel.
Rather than spurring the effort to cut fossil fuel use, the misstep now threatens to set it back.
It angered those who can least afford to pay more to get to work and drop off their children at school. Fossil fuel champions — including President Trump — jumped on it. And it landed with a thud during the critical United Nations climate change negotiations underway in Poland, which Édouard Philippe, France’s prime minister, was forced to skip because of bubbling unrest at home.
More than that, the decision this week to put a moratorium on the tax increase came after protests nationwide turned violent, causing four deaths and millions of dollars in damage and injuring more than 250 people.

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