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Populism could derail the green transition

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Climate news sometimes feels almost too painful to read. I had to force myself to get through last week’s report that levels of Antarctic sea-ice are shrinking at “mind-blowing” speeds. But while the environment is telling us to move much faster in the fight against global warming, some political leaders want to slow down.

Newspapers have been full of headlines about Rishi Sunak’s U-turn on environmental policies. Britain’s prime minister is not alone. The pressures he has bowed to are weighing down on leaders across the western world.

The underlying problem is that most mainstream politicians have embraced a convenient half-truth about climate change. This holds that the journey to net zero is not only essential for the environment but will also be good for the economy. The jobs of the future, we are told, will be green jobs.

This is true, as far as it goes. But it glosses over the transitional costs. The switch away from fossil fuels is very expensive. As that reality kicks in, so opposition is growing from people who balk at the cost of giving up their old cars or replacing their gas boilers.

Matt Goodwin, an academic and populist activist, argues that the drive to net zero will provoke the “next big populist revolt in western politics”. As Goodwin points out, the British public supports net zero as an aspiration. But that support drops to 16 per cent if the transition involves an increase in household bills. Some 54 per cent place a higher priority on the cost of living than on net zero.

This should not be a surprising discovery. The gilets jaunes protests that rocked France were initially triggered by a rise in green fuel duties. A quote (possibly apocryphal) from a protester summed up the dilemma: “They talk about the end of the world. We are talking about the end of the week.”

This year it is Germany’s turn. Government plans to outlaw the installation of new gas boilers in favour of heat pumps caused a backlash from consumers who risked getting stuck with huge bills. That helped provoke a surge in the polls for the far-right Alternative for Germany, which denounces the “green fascism” of the German elite. The government has now reluctantly slowed down the transition to heat pumps.

As European governments hesitate to take the politically unpopular measures required to achieve net zero, the EU’s much-ballyhooed “Green New Deal” is coming under intense pressure. As the FT reported this week, its key provisions are being watered down or delayed amid backlash from industry, farmers and companies.

The Biden administration risks being caught in a similar squeeze. The theory behind Bidenomics is that US government subsidies will help to create lots of high-paying industrial jobs, in new green industries. It sounds like a win-win. But the current auto workers strike is driven, in large part, by fears that the transition from petrol cars to electric vehicles will involve considerable lay-offs, and that the new jobs may not pay as well as the old ones.

In the US, the populist right is already in full cry against net zero. Donald Trump is likely to take advantage in the 2024 presidential election. But the politics of net zero do not point only in one direction. Politicians who abandon the fight against global warming also risk being punished, particularly by middle-class and affluent voters.

Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister who has become a guru to British conservatives, lost his seat in a wealthy Sydney suburb to a pro-climate action candidate in 2019. The “Teals” — independents who emphasise climate action — gained more seats from conservatives in the better-off parts of Australia in the last election. But that has not stopped rightwingers continuing to call loudly for the abandonment of Australia’s “utterly untenable” pledges to reach net zero by 2050.

The geopolitics of the drive to net zero are also fraught. It is often argued that one of the advantages of the shift away from fossil fuels is that it will make democracies less reliant on Russia and Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, it is also making the west more reliant on China, the world’s most important producer of solar panels, batteries and rare-earth minerals.

The mess that the EU and US are getting themselves into makes a striking contrast with the rapid development of renewable energy in China. But even Beijing is slowing down its transition away from fossil fuels, coal in particular.

The drive for energy security in China has led to a new “coal frenzy” — and an acceleration in the rate at which new coal-fired power stations are being opened. That weighs on the climate far more than any policies adopted in Britain or Germany, because China is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the G7 economies put together.

So where is the good news? Perhaps it lies in the fact that none of the world’s major economies are yet led by “climate deniers”. Even as he announced the slowdown in green policies this week, Sunak repeatedly emphasised that his government remains committed to net zero.

But when it comes to actual climate action Sunak, like other western leaders, seems increasingly drawn to a version of St Augustine’s prayer: “Lord give me chastity and continence. But not yet.”

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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