Date: 1 August 2023 Author: Pieter Cleppe
The European consensus on climate policy is unraveling
The departure of EU “climate” Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who is hoping to do well in the upcoming Dutch election, may well be a pivotal moment. More than anyone else, Timmermans is the face of the European Union’s drive for ever more intrusive regulations to combat climate change.
Interestingly, the same EU Commission that is so keen to impose huge economic costs for the sake of reducing CO2 emissions is less than enthusiastic about embracing nuclear power, which is the one energy source able to reconcile lower CO2 emissions and maintaining our living standards, given the widely documented shortcomings of wind and solar power. In March, EU Commission President von der Leyen called nuclear not ‘strategic’ for EU decarbonisation. It should be noted that by taking this stance, the EU Commission is in violation of the Euratom Treaty, which requires it to promote nuclear power. Despite all of this, the “nuclear alliance” of pro-nuclear EU member states, led by France, recently secured a success, as the European Parliament rejected a motion to oppose the inclusion of nuclear and gas as environmentally sustainable economic activities.
Austrian academic Ralph Schoellhammer documents how “there is a Europe wide push back against net zero”, listing how the German government, with the greens on key positions, is now forced to authorize new gas-fired power plants. Interestingly, the only way to get the EU to approve the necessary subsidies for investors is to frame these as necessary in case wind and solar power do not suffice. It would be embarrassing for the German government to do this, as it has maintained that this should not be a problem even when combined with the closure of Germany’s last nuclear power plants, which were still perfectly functional. In the first place, it is of course ridiculous that taxpayers need to finance subsidies due to deliberate government policy to shut down nuclear power plants. Interestingly, this decision was taken by a government led by Angela Merkel, who u-turned over nuclear power, following the hysteria over the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Japan is now going all in on nuclear power again, mirroring a nuclear renaissance that is also evident in the United States. That makes sense. As well-known British environmental activist George Monbiot wrote already at the time of the disaster: “Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power. (…) A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.”
This view has been vindicated. Until today, there is only 1 confirmed cancer death attributed to radiation exposure by the government for the purpose of compensation, following opinions from a panel of radiologists and other experts. When looking at “death rates per unit of electricity production”, nuclear power ranks as even safer than wind power, and only slightly less safe than the safest energy source, solar power.
Apart from economic gravity forcing politicians to u-turn on radical climate policies and energy experiments, also voter protest is playing a role. The massive victory of the Dutch farmer party earlier this year in provincial elections has now also indirectly led to the collapse of the coalition government of PM Mark Rutte, who is even leaving Dutch politics.
At the heart of this was a protest movement by farmers against EU-imposed nitrogen restrictions. While national policy has “goldplated” these EU requirements, the only sustainable solution is to either water down the EU requirements or to alternatively allow member states to alter land areas they have designated as sensitive nature reserve, something which the EU legal machinery has obstructed until now. Also in neighbouring Belgium this is causing profound political uproar, as farmers have managed to convince the Christian democratic coalition partner in the Flemish regional government to back their corner, so at some point, this may well end up at the EU policy level, whether eurocrats like it or not.
Furthermore, there are the interesting developments on the other side of the Channel, in the UK, where politicians have started to diverge from the EU’s climate change policy consensus. In July, the ruling Conservative Party suffered a big defeat in by-elections, but thanks to local protest against the hated expansion of a so-called “low emission zones”, it was at least able to hold on to an important seat – in Uxbridge, which used to be the seat of Boris Johnson. The message seems to have been understood in the Conservative Party leadership, which has been struggling with terrible polling for a while now, and suddenly, the British government is making noises about abandoning its policy to phase out petrol cars by 2030.
This followed Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary and another Tory critic of net zero targets, explaining that the lesson of Uxbridge was “high-cost green policies are not popular”, urging the party to delay moves on phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles. However, also the Labour party has been changing tack, recently, as its leader, Keir Starmer, widely expected to become Britain’s new PM, stated ‘I hate tree-huggers’. He is reportedly unhappy about his party’s ‘eco-warriors’, having received a lot of blowback, both from within his party and from trade unions, about Labour plans to ban new oil and natural gas exploration in the North Sea.
On one important topic, the UK has already materially diverged from the EU’s environmental policy consensus. When it comes to deforestation, Britain simply recognizes the standards of its trading partners, as opposed to the EU, which just decided to impose a lot of new bureaucracy on for example Indonesian and Malaysian exporters of palm oil in the name of the fight against deforestation. This despite the fact that they have already taken lots of measures to counter this trend with domestic certification schemes like the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Board. This approach has had positive effects, as primary forest loss in Malaysia decreased by almost 70% between 2014 and 2020, according to Global Forest Watch.
Due to its liberal approach and in return for scrapping import tariffs for palm oil to zero, the UK was allowed entry into the new transpacific trade deal CPTPP. Meanwhile, the EU’s trade talks with South East Asia were frozen in June over its rigid stance, and the relationship remains tense.
A pan-European change of mind
An ever wider gap is appearing between the German government coalition, where the greens are holding key positions of power, and public opinion. In fact, over the last two years, support for the climate and environmental movement has declined by 50% in Germany. Those stating that this movement “basically has my support” declined from 68 percent in 2021 to 34 percent in 2023.
A key factor are without any doubt the actions all across Europe of climate activist groups like “just stop oil”, whose road blocks have been stopping people from going to the hospital haven’t exactly supported their cause in the eyes of the public. Somehow, it never takes long for these kinds of groups to abandon normal, democratically legitimate forms of political campaigning.
Clear policy changes are now visible in various European countries. While the German greens have managed to block radical departure from the current consensus, Sweden is now going full-on towards nuclear power, a reversal of 40 years policy, while lowering its fossil fuel reduction targets.
In Belgium, the government has just secured a deal with the French owner of Belgian nuclear power reactors to at least keep a few online for a few more years. The greens are in the government, but they were forced to accept this. Also Italy is looking again at nuclear, while a brand new nuclear plant in Finland was opened earlier this year, and new nuclear capacity announced in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and France.
Poland’s Ministry of Climate and Environment has just given a decision-in-principle to construct a nuclear power plant. The country is also fiercely resisting the EU’s new climate policies, even challenging the EU’s 2035 combustion engine phaseout at the European Court of Justice.
Furthermore, newly proposed mandatory EU renovation targets are facing increased opposing from member states, with Italy is one its fiercest opponents, as 60 percent of the country’s building stock may be affected. One diplomat has called this aspiration “crazy and beyond the reach of most” EU countries.
Last but not least, in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), which is the largest faction, is railing against some of the newly proposed EU environmental regulations, having abandoned its previous complete support for the “European Green Deal”. Clearly, next year’s European Parliament elections are already exerting an effect on policy. The results may further undermine the current climate policy consensus.
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