Of the many strange sights seen in Europe this year, few were more unexpected than that of legions of protesters in bright yellow vests blockading the streets and highways of France. Bringing traffic to a standstill and leaving Paris stores with their windows smashed, the fast-growing, politically unaffiliated Gilet Jaune movement even risked toppling the government of President Emmanuel Macron.
It’s not necessarily the scale or intensity of these protests that is shocking—France, after all, is a country with a tradition of vigorous street protest. What surprises is the spark that triggered them: a fuel surcharge. It says much about 2018 that what would have been a far smaller issue a decade ago now took center stage. Indeed, France’s protests were just the most prominent example of a Europe-wide phenomenon in which the fight to control climate-warming emissions and air pollution—and above all, the cars that produce it—became a core battleground for cities and entire nations. For while France’s drivers were protesting their new gas tax, authorities across Europe were working to curb the use of cars with a new set of laws imagined on a scale not seen before. Tellingly, these car-fighting regulations were often proposed with wide popular backing.
In a decidedly mixed year, it’s worth looking at the good news first. Thanks to moves made in 2018, the air of some European cities will certainly be cleaner. The biggest coup of 2018 came from Madrid which, in a bid to cut congestion and pollution, effectively barred all non-resident cars from its city center this December. Madrid’s new car curbs are just the first big city version of 138 similar bans planned for all of Spain’s major cities by its current government. Those would not be fully in place until 2025—and by that date the government could have changed—but the strikingly high level of support suggest the policy may well survive. A recent survey found that 63 percent of respondents in a nationwide poll supported the idea of similar urban auto bans across Spain. That’s powerful evidence of a national sea change.
Madrid was not the only city to tighten car pollution regulations year, however. Following the example set by Paris in 2016, Brussels also started fining any heavily polluting vehicles that entered its central low emissions zone on October 1. Meanwhile, the cities of Paris, Madrid, and Brussels worked together in court to overturn what they insisted were too-lax E.U. controls on vehicle emissions. This laxity originated in 2016, when the E.U. loosened its regulations concerning new vehicles (specifically in what it calls Class Euro 6), allowing their engines to emit double the pollutants initially agreed when Euro 6 regulations were first agreed in 2007.
Manufacturers now have a year to return to the original emissions standards, a result that Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo said marked the end of an era in which “car manufacturers and industrial lobbies have been able to dictate the rules that regulate some of their most polluting products.” The ruling will also make it legally possible for the three cities to ban all diesel cars made before September 2018, further tightening their existing provisions. Moreover, the E.U. has also just agreed to require car manufacturers to slash CO2 emissions by 37.5 percent by 2030. While the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been doing its best to hamper or reverse greenhouse gas emissions and car efficiency regulations, Europe’s aggressive campaign to mitigate the most catastrophic impacts of private automobile use is a heartening reminder that the battle against human-caused climate change has not yet been wholly lost.
Indeed, in some small areas, that battle is being won: Oslo Vice Mayor Hanna Elise Marcussen, working in a city which is relentlessly banishing cars from its core, recently told the New York Times that she thought driving a car in the center of a city would one day seem as unacceptable and outmoded as smoking indoors. Judging by the recent tide of European car bans (in which Oslo is no outlier), she may indeed be right.
But this campaign has also inspired a fierce backlash, one that has exposed the seams in European society. Paris’ 2016 decision to ban cars from the Seine quayside faced a legal challenge from drivers’ associations and suburban municipalities, who questioned the basis of its feasibility study’s claims to slash pollution. The ban survived, because Paris avoided the pollution issue by reframing the ban for heritage-protection purposes, an argument that saw it sail through a court judgement issued in October.
All this, however, was nothing compared to the blaze of anger provoked by France’s decision to raise fuel taxes. President Macron’s announcement that an extra “eco-tax” would be levied on gas and diesel (the latter at double the rate of the former) lit a powder keg of varied resentments across the country at a president who seemed unconcerned with the lives of those living in what social geographer Christophe Guilluy has famously dubbed “peripheral France”—the struggling smaller towns and outlying regions that feel economically and physically isolated from affluent urban areas. A movement harnessing the frustrations of many French people who feel their living standards are falling, the Gilets Jaunes succeeded in overturning the new tax law, but have continued to rumble on as a grouping whose agenda is impassioned but diffuse in its aims.
The Gilets Jaunes may not have only been angry about fuel taxes, but their choice of this central pivot nonetheless revealed something vital and troubling that is all too often overlooked. As the example of Spain’s proposed city-center car bans shows, it is perfectly possible to get widespread public support for strict environmental regulations—support that goes far beyond the usual narrow confines of activist circles. But even though the impacts of pollution and climate-related extreme weather disproportionately afflict those of lower incomes, any climate policy that does not consider the effects of social inequality is likely to be bitterly resented. A green agenda that is most likely to be successful must also be an anti-inequality agenda, one that also works for people who are ill-served by public transportation and still rely on driving to access jobs and economic opportunities.
A mixed year, then—but not a hopeless one. Europe’s car policies proved to be divisive in 2018, they were also central to public debate. That in itself is a powerful signal. For decades, environmental activism has labored under the accusation that it is a distraction from more urgent economic issues, a matter that only gets addressed when the economy—with which it has supposedly no connection—is humming along. In Europe, this dynamic has been defeated; the profound link between economic issues and both transportation and environmental policies has finally been acknowledged. From now on—and for both better and worse—they will be confronted as one central dilemma, one that is set to stay at the heart of the continent’s political agenda.