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Gilets Jaunes may be the start of a worldwide revolt against climate action

The episodes of violence as a result of the Gilets Jaunes protests in France, which were initially triggered by increasing fuel prices, are an example of a recent type of conflict related to energy resources. Although these fuel riots have been happening for years now, these have never been studied or defined in an academic context.

In my research, I collected the first database of fuel riots that occurred across the world between 2005 and 2013, which amounted to 44 different events. Analysing the data, I found that these violent riots are more likely when the international price of oil increases, and in countries that are politically fragile.

There are two ways in which climate change and scarcity can cause conflict over energy resources, and both act through the price of fossil fuels. The first is through climate action: governments introduce higher taxes on fossil fuels and related products in order to tackle climate change, which increases their price, which in turn triggers conflict. France is the only example we know of this pathway.

The second comes about because fossil fuels themselves are also becoming scarcer and more difficult and expensive to extract, and this also increases their prices on the international market. To ensure poorer people still have access, essential products such as petrol and heating fuel are heavily subsidised all over the world. But, as the international price goes up, poorer nations often cannot afford high subsidies or prefer to redirect funds to other causes such as healthcare and other services to boost development. When governments slash subsidies, regular people end up having to pay more.

This is what happened in Nigeria, which despite being rich in crude oil, does not have many refineries and imports large quantities of fuel. The government in 2012 decided to cut a subsidy, leading to the doubling of fuel prices and transport fares. The reaction of the population was immediate, with violent protests and strikes that led to several deaths.

The removal of fuel subsidies led Nigeria’s unions to call mass strikes. EPA

Violent episodes from these two pathways have been called “fuel riots”, but no definition has ever been provided. So to define these events I adapted the definition of food riots coined by the World Bank: “Violent, collective unrest leading to a loss of control, bodily harm or damage to property, essentially motivated by a lack of fuel availability, accessibility or affordability, as reported by the international and local media, and which may include other underlying causes of discontent.”

Political instability and expensive fuel

If you were to monitor international fuel prices and national political fragility to identify countries at risk of experiencing fuel riots, as suggested in my research, France would have been one of the countries flagged up. Two thirds of the historical increase in France’s pump prices can be attributed to international oil prices, which rose steadily between June 2017 and October 2018, the month before the start of the demonstrations.

Brent and WTI spot crude oil prices plotted monthly. US EIA

In addition, according to the World Bank’s indicator of Political Stability and Absence of Violence, France’s stability had been deteriorating between 2010 and 2016 and is considerably lower than the average in high-income countries. This measure of fragility takes into account several social and economic indicators and expert opinions.

According to this evidence, there will inevitably be more fuel riots in future across the globe, thanks to rising international fossil fuel prices and (hopefully) increased action against climate change from national governments. However, governments still need to tackle climate change and many policies will target the price of energy-related products to encourage a switch to sustainable practices such as renewables and electric cars.

So if governments need to implement these unpopular policies, how can they avoid a violent rejection from populations? First of all, the design and implementation of new policies needs to become more inclusive. In fact, one of the most cited reason behind the riots in France was the need for acknowledgement from a working class that feels neglected.

In addition, there needs to be better communication of why these measures are required to ensure the support of communities who are likely to be most affected. Climate policy needs to be seen as relevant for those communities, if they are to support its implementation.

Also, cash transfers or other forms of support need to be put in place to guarantee that the most deprived parts of the population – who cannot switch to more sustainable but expensive options as swiftly as others – still have access to basic resources such as heating and petrol to drive to work. Finally, parts of the revenue (in case of a tax) or saved expense (in case of a slashed subsidy) should be redirected to important causes or to fund the cash transfers mentioned above.

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