The French Citizens’ Assembly, Europe and the Climate

Reconciling the management of energy transition to the imperative of social justice

Pierre CALAME, February 2020

In France in 2019–2020, a panel of 150 randomly selected citizens is working for six months, under the ‘Citizens’ Climate Convention’, to draw up proposals to drive the energy transition and preserve the climate in accordance with the French government’s repeated international and national commitments.

Four months after the beginning of this radically innovative process in French political culture, and after hearing many experts, the panel has not had the opportunity to be presented, let alone to debate, a systemic solution that is nevertheless obvious if we want to reconcile an effective management of the transition and social justice. This solution consists in allocating each year, to each resident in the country, the same number of ‘carbon points’ corresponding to C02 emission rights, recorded in a ‘carbon account’, these rights being transferable.

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The Citizens’ Climate Convention, one hundred and fifty citizens selected by random draw, working together for six months on proposals to be submitted to the French government and people to fight climate change and honour our international commitments, will table its conclusions this coming April. It is a remarkable step forward for deliberative democracy in our country. This is the first time that citizens selected by random draw will have had, on such a decisive issue, time to listen to experts that they have chosen and to deliberate among themselves with the assurance that their recommendations will be taken seriously.

What is expected of them? That they propose, after thirty years of collective inefficiency in the face of global warming, the means to comply with an annual C02 abatement curve for emissions connected with the French lifestyle, both direct emissions and emissions induced by the goods and services that we import, in line with our international commitments.

The only effective and socially fair way to do this is to allocate to each citizen a fossil-energy quota, part of which he or she can freely sell or buy from his or her neighbours. This is something never mentioned in international agreements or national governments; as they are reluctant to commit to a result, they favour carbon-footprint reduction strategies, which, like election promises, only engage those who believe in them and are never respected, whilst their authors take no responsibility for the ensuing repeated failures. Fossil-fuel quotas are the elephant in the room: an inescapable reality that we refuse to see.

Will the members of the Citizens’ Convention see the elephant in the room? Will the mandate they have been given allow them to do so? Will the experts they have heard from open their eyes? These questions are all the more important as the European Union will soon be embarking on the same process; the Conference on the Future of Europe, the contours and method of which are currently under discussion among the Council, the Commission and the Parliament, will give deliberative democracy its full importance; and the fight against climate change will be on the Conference agenda, at a time when Europe will be embarking on the development of a New Green Pact.

The experience of the French Citizens’ Convention will therefore be closely scrutinised by our European partners. This coincidence of agendas is an extraordinary opportunity, because implementing tradable carbon quotas is more effective and easier at the scale of a large unified market such as the European Union than at the scale of one of its member countries.

After four months of work, no one, it seems, has bothered to show the elephant to the members of the Convention. By asking them to identify sector-based measures in five areas – food, production, housing, consumption and travel – they were blindfolded by the mandate, pressed to lay down « obligations pertaining to means », which when added up will not, in any way, guarantee that the desired result will be achieved, whilst from the outset a global mechanism for allocating emission rights was excluded, this latter entailing an « obligation to achieve a fixed result ». Consequently, as recently as two weeks ago, no one at the Convention had heard about tradable quotas.

I am sorry to say that with a few of my friends, I tried to make available to the Convention citizens a document setting out the philosophy and principles underpinning the implementation of tradable quotas. The document is attached. I shall confine myself here to presenting an outline of it.

1. Why is the allocation of tradable quotas to each citizen an obvious solution, the only one that will reconcile efficiency and social justice?

– For thirty years now, the solutions that have been advocated have proved ineffective; they line up sectoral policies end to end and ignore the growing importance of « grey energy », the fossil energy that we consume unknowingly because it is incorporated into the goods and services we import;

– strategies based on carbon taxation inevitably fail, and burden the poor more than the rich;

– after so many years of inaction, we know the annual rate of emission reductions needed to comply with our share of the fight against global warming; this has a name: rationing;

– from the moment there is a pie to be shared among all citizens and the pie is shrinking every year, we need to adopt a socially just rule for sharing the pie, one that rewards energy sobriety. This rule is the allocation of annual carbon quotas to all, with a market for trading these quotas. We always come to this solution when we need to protect a scarce resource, fishing resources, for example: by allocating annual catch quotas to fishermen.

2. If this measure is so obvious, why is it held under the code of silence?

– Adopting it would put an end to the generalised schizophrenia of rulers, running from one international summit to the next, once to curb consumption and the next time to boost it;

– with the current economic and monetary instruments we do not know how to reconcile development of the well-being of all and reduction of fossil-fuel consumption; under these circumstances, leaders prefer to support growth, in order to guarantee their re-election, than to protect the climate;

– quotas, which are the recognition of the limits of our impact on the biosphere, clash with the Western vision of humanity’s continuous progress, making the scarcity of resources a vestige of the past to which there is no question of returning; we admit this scarcity for fishing, but we find it more difficult to admit it for fossil energy, which symbolizes the industrial revolution;

– in France, energy rationing is a frightening prospect: it is not imagined, as in Great Britain, as related to social justice and victory, but to war and defeat, to the point that « rationing » is still a dirty word that we hardly dare to pronounce;

– our supposed economics are based on principles that are rarely discussed. One of them is the principle of currency unity, which prevents us from taking measures to develop human activity and limit fossil-fuel consumption; our economic machine is like a car that would have one and the same pedal for the brake and the accelerator!

– the idea of tradable quotas has been perverted by the European carbon market set up for large companies, which is a caricature of it.

3. How will it work?

The effective implementation of quotas allocated annually to all citizens will require a great deal of democratic deliberation, but we can get a fairly accurate idea of the mechanism:

– a « carbon account », which is recorded on a magnetic card the same way a digital wallet does and corresponds to the annual allocation at the beginning of a year, will be debited at each purchase; it is comparable to the « sugar account » of a diabetic who is free to choose what he or she consumes but whose every act of consumption results in a reduction of his or her remaining account;

– citizens receive annual allowances, while companies and administrations receive a starting allowance to enable them to operate for the first year, their carbon allowance then being replenished by customer purchases for companies, and by taxes for administrations;

– the system presupposes traceability of fossil-fuel energy consumption throughout the chain, in the same way that today value is added by means of the VAT. Isolating fossil-energy expenditure within an accounting system is not a magic trick and is also in line with trends that are already at work to take better account not only of financial capital but also of natural and human capital;

– the widespread use of electronic money and the growing practice of paying via one’s smartphone will make it ever easier to debit a carbon account;

– the socially redistributive effect of the measure is guaranteed: the energy efficiency of the poorest is often poor – poorly insulated housing, old cars, etc. – and for them, this translates into an excessive energy-expenditure burden in their budget (fuel poverty), but their consumption of fossil energy remains well below average;

– investments and loans will contain terms of amortisation and repayment in carbon points; reduction in quotas, known in advance (6 to 7% per year to meet our commitments), will ensure a return on investment in the energy transition, at a time when considerable masses of savings are seeking an outlet.

4. Managing external trade

– More than half of France’s external deficit is accounted for by fossil energy and its derivatives; in this case the « carbon content » is very easy to measure;

– outside of fossil fuels, the bulk of external trade is with other EU countries within the single market; this shows the importance of extending tradable quotas to the whole of the EU and of a debate to be initiated within the framework of the New Green Pact;

– sector-based studies, including of fossil-energy consumption, are increasingly numerous, particularly at the initiative of financial institutions, and this will make it easier and easier to assess the « carbon content » of imported goods; this estimate will be taken into account to debit the carbon points corresponding to imports;

– for imported products, the carbon-account debit is not a tax but the levelling of the conditions of competition between national and imported products; it is therefore in conformity with WTO rules;

– exports will benefit from a credit on the exporter’s carbon account corresponding to their carbon content in trade with countries not practicing the same quota system;

– foreigners visiting France will have to acquire a carbon account, which will be refunded to them on their departure (same mechanism as the VAT refund).

5. The link between quotas and the sector-based recommendations under discussion at the Convention

– Quotas are an obligation to achieve a fixed result, whilst sector-based recommendations are obligations pertaining to means; quotas generate an « overall dynamics » that enables most of the solutions put forward by the sector-based recommendations to be implemented;

– by generalising measurement of the carbon content of goods and services, quotas will make it possible to sort out true and false solutions; for example, « short cycle » does not always mean « agriculture with low fossil-fuel costs »;

– establishing a multiannual pace of quota reductions will engage the responsibility of political leaders, helping to put an end to the unlimited irresponsibility of today’s societies, whose inertia in the face of climate change is its symbol.


An article by Pierre Calame, first published in French in the ‘Blog de Pierre Calame’, January 31, 2020 (original title: ‘La Convention citoyenne, l’Europe et le climat’)