Climate change Fossil - CWG Speakers

Getting real on climate change

Net Zero is a difficult topic for democratic governments. While the policy is largely supported by most electorates, governments have not always been transparent about the costs. In the UK, former Prime Minister and green convert Boris Johnson regularly talked about the net zero transition as a huge economic opportunity. It would create 250,000 new jobs and turn the UK into the world’s leading centre of green technology and finance. 

Economy vs environment trade-off? 

Johnson’s optimistic and business-friendly approach to the energy transition was useful in bringing some more sceptical conservatives on board. However, he failed to convey the grand nature of the challenge ahead. Michael Liebreich, founder of what is now Bloomberg New Energy Finance encapsulated the challenge as follows, “every sector of the economy will have to switch to new technologies, consumers will have to change behaviours, new supply chains will have to be built, and all this has to happen in every major economy, in just a few decades, and at the cost of a whole generation’s savings.” 

The scale of this challenge is appreciated by current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. His government recently relented on some of the more ambitious timelines in the 2050 Net Zero plan. A ban on petrol and diesel cars was delayed from 2030 to 2035. Plans to phase out fossil fuel boilers have been pushed back to 2035 from 2026. Meanwhile, regulators have given the green light to develop Rosebank oil and gas field, one of the largest untouched reserves in UK waters. If environmental campaigners are concerned by this recent action, they will be even more worried about government rhetoric. Sunak recently ruled out any new taxes to discourage flying and also talked about scrapping burdensome recycling schemes. 

Fossil Fuels will play an important role in energy transition

Supporters of recent developments argue this is a move towards ‘climate realism’. As Ed Conway notes in his brilliant new book, “Material World”, fossil fuels still provide about 80% of the energy used globally. And the relationship between these commodities and greener energy is complex. Lithium, for instance, is needed to make the batteries necessary for electric cars. Short of shutting down the world economy, the choice is not yet between fossil fuels and renewables but rather how we use the former to transition to the latter. 

Long term benefits for short term pain

Trying to make this transition too suddenly is not a vote-winner. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, people are unwilling to face the higher prices or taxes that are likely necessary to make this transition possible. A recent worldwide poll by the Pew Research Center found that 75% of people felt climate change was a major threat. But when the question was phrased differently and asked respondents to name their three greatest concerns, climate change came ninth. Moreover, short-term election cycles are not terribly conducive to implementing these sorts of policies. Governments are effectively promising pain now for a brighter but very distant future. Large parts of the electorate will not be alive to see that future while others are preoccupied with more immediate concerns of meeting next month’s rent or mortgage payment. 

Growing European climate scepticism 

It’s not just the UK making more sceptical noises around climate change action. The EU has traditionally been seen as a world-leader in this field. But its most influential members are experiencing democratic pushback against this agenda. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won 41.5% of the vote in the 2022 French elections. They will continue to be a major force in French politics. And while Marine Le Pen supports energy transition, she says it must be “much slower than what is being imposed on the French”. Meanwhile the far-right AfD continues to ride high in German polls, profiting from recent attacks on the greens. The party questions the ‘climate emergency’ and leans into the conspiratorial view that this is all simply an underhand plan to de-industrialise the economy. And finally, in the Netherlands, the Farmer-Citizen Movement won the 2023 Dutch provincial elections. What started as an agrarian protest movement against stricter environmental regulations on farms tapped into public anger about political elites implementing policies that made their citizens poorer.  

Climate change becomes a party political issue in the USA 

In America, the whole issue of climate change remains heavily contested. The percentage of the country viewing it as a major problem has dropped from 58% to 54%. Republican voters remain far more sceptical with just 23% calling it a substantial threat. That view is reflected by their current candidates. Likely nominee Donald Trump already reversed green policy during his Presidency, most famously withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. There is nothing to suggest his attitudes have changed. Vivek Ramaswamy, an emerging favourite and possible running mate has said “the climate agenda is a hoax”. Donald Trump is currently the bookmakers’ favourite to return to the White House in 2024 and another four-year term will surely harm the country’s chances of achieving net zero by 2050. 

Can the West keep the rest on board? 

We have only focused here on what is happening in Western democratic nations. But these advanced economies were expected to lead the way on climate change. While support remains for the direction of travel, the speed of the undertaking is increasingly questioned. Should these nations backtrack on their more ambitious commitments, it is difficult to see how they can persuade the Global South and major developing economies like India and China of the need for imminent action. Instead, as 2050 draws closer, we may see governments keen to secure short-term mandates kick the problem a little further down the road. “Climate Realism” is the order of the day.  



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