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16 May 2024

Net zero needs a new politics

The most extreme end of the green movement is sacrificing legitimate debate at the altar of climate change purity.

By Ryan Wain and Tone Langengen

This March was the hottest on record. The last 18 months have been the wettest in history. Our planet’s climate is heating up but the political climate shows no signs of cooling down. Populists will do well in June’s European elections by holding a mirror to the anxieties of voters across the continent – anxieties about the trade-offs of the climate transition that are being exploited but not invented. In response, political leaders could be pressured into lowering ambitions. This has to be resisted. Net zero needs a new politics.

Stepping back, it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. Our large-scale poll of over 15,000 people across eight European countries (including Britain) tells us over two thirds are concerned about climate change. Climate deniers have been beaten and questioning why we need to tackle climate change is now the preserve of the extreme political fringes. Instead, political leaders must now credibly show how we reduce emissions and until they do, a fragility will remain to the consensus that action is needed at all.

Since the UK and Europe first set their ambitious targets to reach net zero, the pattern of global emissions has changed radically. Those in the developed world have reduced while the developing world has seen emissions rise. The European public is particularly sceptical about China — a full 80 per cent does not believe the country will achieve net zero by 2050. The political focus must shift to how we reduce emissions.

We’re failing on this. While 61 per cent of Europeans support the target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, just 31 per cent trust their governments to deliver. Though politicians talk a lot about ‘green’ jobs, infrastructure and transition, it is often completely unclear to the public how the promises will be turned into reality. Mainstream politics has to shed this obsession and be pragmatic. The most extreme end of the green movement has become quasi-religious, sacrificing practical plans and legitimate debate at the altar of climate change purity. Mainstream political leaders are exposed to those on the right without any ambition on climate, and activists on the left without credible strategies for how to reach net zero. Political platforms should now turn towards how we make and export the transition, championing technology and celebrating advances being made across clean tech and innovation. We must turn doubters into believers.

There are reasons to be cheerful: the cost of producing electricity using solar has fallen by 89 per cent in 10 years, meaning it is now the cheapest source of energy almost everywhere, while generative AI could make the logistics of mass home decarbonisation much easier – and support to implement changes better targeted. When voters hear this, their faith in a transition rises. Perhaps most importantly of all, our research finds it is the third of the public who are climate sceptics that are most likely to be swayed by this message. A new politics that embraces innovation can create fresh converts to the climate cause as the potential of technology boosts credibility.

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There are hard truths too. Change isn’t cost neutral and there are difficult trade-offs involved – but a sensible discussion backed up by credible plans and legislative change is our best shot at bringing people along. Removing a relentless focus on top-down ‘green’ targets from our political conversation can make way for a ‘bottom-up’ debate that’s much more relevant to voters’ lives. Most members of the public we spoke to across eight European countries listed the cost of living, jobs and healthcare as their priorities – so don’t talk green, talk the peoples’ priorities. Health is a perfect example. As birthrates decline across Europe and people live longer, every political leader needs a plan to shift expensive healthcare systems from treatment to prevention. Air quality, outdoor spaces, more walking and less driving – all policy ideas that have become the preserve of the green agenda – should instead be categorised as answers to problems that voters relate to in their daily lives. The same goes for the economy. Here, it’s worth reflecting that the most fundamental ‘green’ intervention by a single government of our lifetime is something called “the Inflation Reduction Act” from the US.

The final part of this political evolution is to shift focus from one simply on domestic targets to creating the technology which can help the world meet net zero. Commitments to reduce emissions and jump start the transition to renewables have been an important, scientifically-backed tool to galvanise and organise policy. They have jolted countries into action and enabled states to cooperate across the boundaries that climate change doesn’t respect. But political horse trading and one upmanship centered on micro-targets is distorting policy, without either creating the infrastructure capable of meeting those targets, or acknowledging the fact that the challenge in climate policy today is the energy transition in the developing world. Political leaders must inject political capital into supporting innovators through plans and global agreements that enable the scaling and distribution of clean technologies in less developed regions.

We’ve won the debate on taking action. Now we need tangible plans. Let this be the moment we embrace a new politics for net zero—one that is as dynamic and capable as the technologies paving our way to a sustainable future.

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