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03 October 2023

Climate backlash

Richi Sunak's U-turn on climate change policies was crude and dramatic. But it is also symptomatic of what has been happening within centre-right parties all over Europe as well. The Paris climate accord policy consensus is starting to break down.

Having listened to German Christian Democrats on this issue, their stated support for climate change policies always felt like a New Year's resolution. The CDU's candidate at the last German election, Armin Laschet, always talked about climate change in Yes-But terms. Yes, it was a terrible thing. But, we have to carry everyone along. The consensus behind the Paris climate accord was never what it seemed. Some believed in it. Some paid lip service to it. Europe's centre-right falls squarely into the latter category.

The backlash already started long before Sunak's U-turn. The European People's Party, the representation of the centre-right right parties in the European Parliament, has shifted its previous position to support the European Commission's Green Deal, its climate change agenda. Under the leadership of Manfred Weber, an ambitious politician from the Bavarian CSU, the EPP sought to block the Commission's proposed Nature Restoration Law, one of the most important components of the Green Deal. The central idea is that 20% of land and maritime areas should be protected by 2030, and that areas considered to be in poor environmental health should be restored by 2050.  

The German CDU/CSU draws much of its support from rural communities. Farmers were up in arms over this law. And so are their political representatives. 

The EPP's revolt against the Nature Preservation Law failed at a vote in the European Parliament in July, but only narrowly. Their defeat is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new political confrontation. The centre-right has discovered a new theme for itself: opposition to climate change policies. Climate change has all of a sudden become partisan.

Without the continued support of the centre-right, the agenda cannot succeed in the long run. 

The EPP has been the big beast of European politics. Its leaders included Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, José Maria Aznar and Mariano Rajoy in Spain, and Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel in Germany. The centre-right is much reduced now. The CDU/CSU lost the 2021 German elections with the worst result ever. Forza Italia is nowadays a shadow of its former self, a small coalition partner in Giorgia's Meloni's government. Les Republicains, the French party of the centre-right, lost three successive French presidential elections. Spain's Partido Popular was the odds-on favourite to win the Spanish elections in July, but failed. They are all desperate. And so are the Tories.

The main problem for the centre right in continental Europe is the far-right. The CDU/CSU, now in opposition, failed to benefit from the lack of popularity of Olaf Scholz' government. They are polling barely above their all-time low from 2021. What happened is that the far-right Alternative for Germany more than doubled its support since the elections and is now polling at 21-22%. As with Brexit, the threat is not that the populists win the elections themselves, but they are setting the agenda. 

This will have profound consequences for the climate change agenda going forward. Once an issue turns from bipartisan to partisan, you can no longer count on compliance with long-term timetables. Political majorities change over time. If the goal is a net zero target by 2050, it would be complacent to think that we are on track. Opposition parties eventually win elections. Over a period of more than 25 years going forward, they surely will. 

This will have ripple effects through the political system. Non-partisan institutions will find it harder to support climate change policies that are subject to political controversy. The European Central Bank, for example, put itself in the vanguard of central banks with an active climate agenda - for example by prioritising green bonds in their asset purchasing programmes. That will not be so easy in the future.

For now, Sunak's decision will not have much of an impact on the rest of the world because all he did was to bring the UK closer in line with the EU on cars. The EU and UK now both have a 2035 target as the end date for the new registration of fuel-driven cars. 

I would expect political tensions within the EU and the UK to rise as we approach the 2035 date. The UK and the EU set their target dates without securing the supply chain for electric cars. Sanctions and tariffs against China will drive up the cost of cars, and may give rise to supply chain shortages. The parties that support the net zero target with active policies will face a populist backlash. The CDU and CSU have not yet positioned themselves in this corner as clearly as Sunak has done. But we are only one poor election performance away from such a policy U-turn. Bavaria holds elections on October 8. The polls right now are not looking too great for them. 

What all this shows is that the western method of global policy coordination is poorly suited to long-term targets. You may be able to co-opt a governments into your agenda, but not its successor. Nor can you co-ordinate voters. 

Global policy co-ordination has therefore reached its limits. The Group of Twenty was born out of the global financial crisis. Russia's invasion of Ukraine breathed life back into Nato, which Emmanuel Macron once described as brain dead. Policy co-ordination, more or less, still works for short-term threats.

But it does not work so well for long-term ones, not even existential threats like climate change. Vested interests will intrude. In the UK, and in the EPP group, they already have.

The article first appeared in the New Statesman on September 28.

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