New Research

Study Reveals Key to Successful Climate Policies: Addressing Economic Inequality

«If climate policies want to be successful, they must be about more than climate,» professor Michaël Tatham says.

Portrettbilde av Michael Tatham og Yvette Peters sammen.
Michaël Tatham og Yvette Peters' research paper which was published in Journal of European Public Policy, was in May awarded the best article in 2023.
Magnus Buseth Danielsen

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The yellow vest movement in France, ignited by a fuel tax hike, underscores the complexities of implementing climate policies. A recent study on Norwegian citizens reveals that people can be willing to accept ambitious green policies, if redistributive measures are also put in place. 

An Illustration of a Policy Failure 

Taxing fuel is considered one key instrument, among others, to reduce climate emissions. 

«If you make fuel more expensive, it makes it more interesting to find alternatives. And if you decrease fuel consumption, you decrease emissions in a mechanical way. So this can be seen as a necessary policy. One has to make CO2 more expensive,» professor Michaël Tatham at the Department of Comparative politics, University of Bergen says. 

But when France’s Emmanuel Macron raised the fuel tax in 2018, protests were ignited. The policy was met with outrage, protests and demonstrations by a grassroots movement who called themselves the Yellow vests. In the end, Macron had to reverse the tax increase.

«This is an illustration of a policy failure. And the reason was not that people didn’t believe in climate change, or didn’t believe that this policy was necessary, but because the cost for individual citizens was perceived as being too high and as unfair, because it affected some sections of society more than others,» Tatham says. 

One of the slogans of the Yellow vests was ‘end of the world, end of the month: change the system, not the climate’. 

«Of course everybody cares about the end of the world, but when your biggest concern is the end of the month, then the end of the world seems much further away and therefore less pressing – especially compared  with the end of every month,» Tatham says. 

Few Choices

Those most affected by the tax increase were people living in rural areas, who used fuel for heating, did not have access to public transport, and had no alternatives to using cars.

«These people don’t have much of a choice in their consumption, and they often don’t have a high income. If politicians decide to make anything more expensive, it hurts these people a lot more than wealthier people living in urban areas, with more options at their disposal,» Tatham says.  

Support Gaps

Michaël Tatham and professor Yvette Peters, also at the Department of Comparative politics have been interested in finding out if there is a way to implement ambitious climate policies, while also getting the support of the population, and they wanted to find out whether there is a parallel to the Yellow vest-movement in Norway. 

The two UiB researchers conducted a survey experiment on Norwegian citizens to examine how different policy characteristics create ‘support gaps’ within society. It compared well-educated people living in cities with less-educated people living in the countryside and found that opposition to policies increases as individual costs rise, but not in a straightforward way.

Must Be About More Than Climate

The study shows that policymakers can reduce the gap between these two groups if they use the money from the fuel tax to redistribute to lower income households. 

«In our study we show that you can have a very expensive policy for citizens, with a 35 percent increase in the price of fuel, and they will accept it, if it also comes with other things, such as redistribution for lower income households. This way people who have less money get something back from the tax. It means that you correct for some of the disproportionality in how the policy harms people with a lower income,» Tatham says.

The paper «Fueling opposition? Yellow vests, urban elites, and fuel taxation» which was published in Journal of European Public Policy, was in May awarded the best article in 2023. 

«One of our main messages is that if climate policies want to be successful, they must be about more than climate. They have to be about the consequence that the policy will have for society in general,» Tatham says. 

Could Happen in Norway

What is different about Tatham and Peters’ study, is that it looked at how a policy would affect people differently depending on who they are. 

«We see that who you are is important, in this case if you are rural and less educated. And if there is one group that feels it is always losing out, and this group realizes there are other people like them, and get a group identity, then they can mobilize, and express their discontent. This is what happened with the Yellow vests in France. And this is what could happen, with what we call the 'Yellow vests' in Norway,» Tatham says.

Yvette Peters says there are similar political signs in Norway as with the Yellow vests.  

«We haven’t seen Yellow vest type of demonstrations here in Norway, but the rise of parties like Folkets parti/Folkeaksjonen nei til mer bompenger and Industri- og næringspartiet are signals that these issues are at stake,» Yvette Peters says.

Less Represented

Previous research has found that the preferences of less educated and less wealthy people influence less policy making. 

«They are less represented. It means that what governments propose does not fit with their preferences,» Peters says. 

Peters and Tatham emphasize how important it is that politicians communicate well what they are doing, and what characteristics their policies have. 

«In France, Macron and his government had some compensatory policies, but many citizens didn’t know about them, and these policies were not strong enough. They should have done much more,» Tatham says.

Winners and Losers

«What would be your message to politicians?»

«Any climate and energy policy will have some negative consequences for citizens. If you change something, you create winners and losers. Make sure that you think about the consequences for subgroups, including the groups which are less often represented,» Tatham says.

«Do you have hopes for the future?»

«Yes, I do. We need ambitious climate policies, and our research shows that this is politically possible – if these policies are about more than climate change, addressing people’s daily challenges and concerns. Hopefully this research will end up at some policy makers desk,» Peters says. 

An Important Acknowledgment

«How do you feel about the award?»

«It feels very nice, and like an acknowledgment of the research we did, but also of the important conclusions that we reached. It also helps to spread the news of our findings, which is great», Peters says. 

«It was a wonderful surprise. JEPP published more than 120 articles that year, so to be singled out by the jury out of all of those very good other articles felt like an honor, but also a little but humbling», Tatham says. 


Michaël Tatham and Yvette Peters: «Fueling opposition? Yellow vests, urban elites, and fuel taxation». Journal of European Public Policy, 2023.