EU election risk: policymakers should go for real decarbonisation now while efficiency savings can help
by Joe Mitton, March 15, 2019
With elections in May, the balance of opinion in Parliament is a climate policy risk factor on the minds of many in Brussels. The national draft 10-year energy plans, just in to the Commission, project widespread growth in costlier renewables. But populists who see climate as a globalist rather than nationalist-first agenda may prove hard to bring on side with an expensive and disruptive transition. The public will be influenced by climate awareness, leadership and their wallets. The EU’s efficiency-first programme won’t be enough in the long term but while it’s delivering savings there’s a chance to use that to support real decarbonisation. This could be crucial to keep citizens supportive in a more climate-hostile political landscape. Political observer, Joe Mitton considers the opportunities and threats ahead…
EU energy policy has so far accommodated an expanding gas sector, and has tolerated the coal sector, while focusing on efficiency and subsidised renewables. This has helped keep household energy prices relatively low. But as the 2020s dawn, difficult choices will need to be made in order to meet the EU’s carbon reduction goals. Balancing the drive for decarbonisation with the need for public support will become trickier in the next decade.
Recent events show that when prices rise, environmental concerns quickly give way to popular indignation. The gilets jaunes protests started as a revolt against a planned increase in the tax on diesel. Even in environmentally-conscious France, the government had misjudged public willingness to accept a higher fossil fuel tax.
The threat of climate change denialism and “anti-European forces”
First, let us consider the threat that political climate-scepticism could pose to decarbonisation policies if prices rise steeply. At the 5th annual EU Energy Summit last week (5 March), former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, raised the need for social acceptance of the energy transition. He warned that the transition could be threatened by “anti-European forces”.
Buzek made an important point there. Beyond the simple economics of consumers preferring cheap energy, there are also political forces at work in several countries against energy transition. Some examples:
- Russia has strong economic and political interests in Arctic resources and in European dependence on its gas exports. President Putin has questioned climate science.
- Some high-profile pro-Brexit politicians in the UK have argued the planet may be cooling, not warming.
- The United States’ leadership denies the existence of man-made climate change.
- In Europe, climate scepticism is popular with right-wing parties such as the German AfD and the Sweden Democrats.
- The Polish labour union, Solidarity, issued a joint statement with a US climate change denying think-tank, Heartland Institute, rejecting the UN IPCC reports on the risks of climate change. Poland currently relies on 60 percent of its energy from coal.
- A recent study by Professor Martin Hultman shows a strong correlation between right-wing nationalist views and climate change denialism among Norwegianmen. Among the right-wing, addressing climate change is often viewed as putting global interests ahead of national interests.
- Australia is very dependent on coal and has climate-sceptic ministers in its government.
Climate change denialism in not a mainstream opinion in Europe yet, but if energy prices go up, more citizens could move to populist parties on the right. In recent German state elections, voters showed increased polarisation. The Greens did very well, but so did the far-right AfD. The same may happen in May’s European parliamentary elections.
More of the same policies?
To date, the EU has accommodated an expanding gas sector and has not picked a political fight with its more coal-dependent Member States. All 28 Member States (even the UK) have recently submitted their draft National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to the Commission. These plans include many laudable proposals for renewable energy sources, but also a continued reliance on gas. Seventeen of the plans say natural gas is necessary to meet the 2030 goals. In Germany, the nuclear and coal sectors will be completely shut down and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia will supply much of Germany’s energy in the next decade.
“the EU needs to help governments such as in Poland and the Czech Republic avoid a public backlash if they decarbonise”
The Commission’s European Decarbonisation Pathways Initiative (EDPI) delivered a report in November 2018. The report includes just one short paragraph on phasing out coal. It says the need for near-term phasing out of coal is “obvious and necessary” but concedes that “such an objective is of course more ambitious and difficult for countries which rely heavily on coal”. This suggests that the EU needs to help governments such as in Poland and the Czech Republic avoid a public backlash if they decarbonise. The report also explains that “from an economic viewpoint”, it makes sense to still use gas while creating negative emissions by other methods.
The report prioritises an “energy efficiency first” principle. Greater efficiency in lighting, heat insulation, energy delivery and storage will lower prices for consumers, after initial investment costs. This achieves both the aims of supporting decarbonisation and being popular, but efficiency has its limits. The popularity of those savings will be an important political asset to offset any price rises from “an increasingly restrictive carbon space”. Particularly because although consideration is given to “an inclusive and just transition”, the report leaves aside the question of the funds required, and who exactly will pay for it.
Towards a citizen-led strategy
Energy efficiency programmes can only reduce carbon emissions so far. Eventually the sources of that energy, no matter how efficient, will need to be renewable and clean. The EU may introduce a “citizen-led” strategy for popular support for its policies. The concept of “citizen-led” policy is already in Commission reports. For EU politicians, the lesson from Brexit has been not to assume that the wisdom of their policies will translate automatically into popular support.
Good progress is being made towards affordable renewables, and eventually for renewables to operate in the market without subsidies. But it remains to be seen whether current policy will deliver the carbon reduction required by the EU’s goals, while also keeping energy prices affordable and keeping citizens supportive.
Joe Mitton is an independent political consultant, former diplomat and former adviser to the Mayor of London.