Across Europe, a backlash against net-zero policy is underway. While polls show that an overwhelming majority believe climate change is a problem and support policies to address it, that support starts to fall once green policies come into force and people begin to experience their costs. To ensure a smooth transition to net zero, policymakers must begin to develop strategies to reduce and address resistance to green policy.
In a 2021 Eurobarometer poll, 71 per cent of Dutch and 67 per cent of German respondents said their respective governments were not doing enough to address climate change. Yet in the recent Dutch upper-house elections a new anti-green party, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), won the most seats of any party – largely based on opposition to the country’s nitrogen-emissions laws. In Germany, the Green Party has been polling at its lowest level in the last three years while the climate-sceptic, right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling at its highest-ever levels. Opposition to the country’s Green Party Energy Minister Robert Habeck’s plan to move renewable-heating deadlines forward appears to be behind these polling numbers. And when the city of Milan introduced a ban on high-emissions vehicles from its city centre in 2018, those whose vehicles were banned became more likely to support the right-wing populist Lega party.
While people support policies to address climate change in the abstract, resistance becomes much stronger when policies begin to take effect. In the Netherlands, in Germany and in Milan, people are beginning to experience the personal costs of climate policy and this is leading to a decline in support for the parties that back it. If this trend continues, the issue could become a new source of support for right-wing populists.
In the United Kingdom, this pattern has not yet come to full fruition. Although there has been occasional, localised objection to climate policies – for instance in the recent Uxbridge by-election – there has not yet been widespread rejection of green policy. Yet many of the deadlines for the most significant policies are still in the future, so their costs have not yet been fully felt by the British public. The deadline to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK isn’t until 2030 and the gas-boiler ban isn’t planned to take effect until 2035. Once these policies come into force, those most affected will likely push back and may draw substantial sympathy from less-affected groups of voters.
Right-wing populists are best positioned to take advantage as support for these policies wanes because they have been the most consistent critics of green policy in Western democracies. And it doesn’t take a large increase in support for populists to cause a large political shake-up: the BBB only received 19 per cent of the vote in the Dutch regional elections and the AfD is up by fewer than 10 percentage points, but these small increases have been enough to cause significant political tremors in the Netherlands and Germany.
The threat of populist opposition does not mean that net-zero policies should be abandoned. It does, however, mean that progressives must build an electoral strategy around net zero with deliverable policy that can retain support across successive elections. They must assure the public that green policy will address the highest-emissions areas, that it will introduce measures to make costs manageable and that these policies will provide tangible benefits to individuals and society. These policies should be presented with optimistic messaging that draws on successes of similar policies in other countries.
First, people want to know that net-zero policies will be effective. Policymakers must focus on the sectors and actions that make the greatest contribution to emissions reductions. While London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), and particularly its forthcoming expansion, is not first and foremost a net-zero policy, it is an example of a policy that gets this relationship backward: it will have little impact on emissions and yet will carry high costs to those least able to afford it. Progressives would be wise to focus on the underlying enablers of the transition, such as expanding the electricity grid or speeding up the planning system.
The public is also aware that the UK makes a relatively small contribution to global emissions, so progressives must also focus on how the UK can contribute to global emissions reduction. Emerging economies will need to limit emissions from industrial development; British policymakers could build on the UK’s strengths in science and finance to deliver the low-cost technologies and funding required.
Second, while net zero cannot be delivered without costs to the public or individuals, these should be carefully managed and minimised where possible. For decarbonising challenging areas like building and transport, we need innovative ways to make the costs more feasible, such as creating a green-mortgage market and affordable financing for heat-pump repayment. The government should introduce incentives for green choices, including feed-in tariffs or scrappage schemes for cars and gas boilers. A positive demand-led transition rather than one delivered through bans and financial penalties will have a better chance of being accepted by the public.
Finally, progressives must communicate climate-change policy in terms of what the public cares about and what works. Politicians should focus on tangible benefits and impacts of net-zero delivery on the economy and jobs, highlighting policy successes in other countries. US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have made the green transition central to their policy platforms, with a strong focus on economic opportunities and jobs. British policymakers should pursue a similar approach, drawing on specific successes: factories that have been built, jobs that have been created, neglected areas that have been revitalised. Because the public is aware that the future of emissions reduction must be delivered by China and other countries whose economies are growing rapidly, policymakers must be open and honest about these challenges. They should seek to communicate worldwide progress on emission reduction, tout their climate diplomacy and endeavour to finance the green transition abroad.
The recent backlash against green policy in Europe should open progressives’ eyes to the political challenges of achieving net zero. Despite what people say in polls, when the costs of green policies begin to hit, support declines. And it doesn’t take a large loss of support to effect a great change in the political landscape. If progressives wish to make net zero a reality, they must begin to develop and communicate green policy in ways that enable it to be an electoral asset rather than a liability.