COP26: how green politics went mainstream

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Peter Rein-Hodurek was sitting at his computer in his Vienna office earlier this year when he spotted a headline on an online news site. A “climate ticket” was about to go on sale allowing Austrians to travel as far and often as they liked on public transport for the equivalent of just €3 a day.“I thought, ‘I’m buying that!’,” says Rein-Hodurek, an IT operations manager who typically pays about €1,700 a year to take the train to work each day from his home 60km west of Vienna. He was among the 100,000 Austrians who snapped up the new pass within four weeks of it going on sale on October 1, a sales figure the scheme’s architects thought would take a year to hit. Rein-Hodurek says it will save him about €700 a year.The scheme — designed to lower emissions — will cost taxpayers an extra €150m a year. And as the ticket is annual, not daily, buyers still have to shell out €1,095 in advance. But it is a big incentive aimed at encouraging Austrians to use public transport instead of cars and one of the more visible signs of a phenomenon reshaping governments across the world: the greening of mainstream politics.The trend is partly driven by rising demand for traditional parties to address the ever more visible impacts of climate change. In some countries, however, it is also being spurred by a new set of green politicians who have ridden a wave of recent voter support to take seats in government, at times with unlikely partners.Austria’s pass was launched by Leonore Gewessler, a minister from the country’s Green party, which entered government last year as a junior partner to the rightwing People’s party. This was one of the first alliances of its kind at a national level and though it left some green supporters uneasy, it has had welcome benefits.

Austria’s ‘climate ticket’ will allow people to travel as far and often as they like on public transport for the equivalent of €3 a day © Christian Bruna/EPA

Other parties had wanted programmes like the climate ticket, says Ulla Rasmussen, whose transport campaign group VCÖ has championed such a measure in Austria for years. “But I think it really needed the commitment of this minister to get it through.”It is unlikely to be the last scheme of its type. The UN’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, which opens on Sunday, will showcase the pace at which traditional parties and leaders are adopting green policies that many have previously overlooked or even disparaged.“Australia now has a target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” announced Scott Morrison, prime minister of Australia, last Tuesday, just five days before the opening of COP26. The move came four years after Morrison notoriously waved a lump of coal in parliament to mock his opponents’ support for renewable energy.The Chinese Communist party and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia are among other converts to net zero targets, which are now in place or under discussion in more than 130 countries, according to the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, a think-tank that tracks such pledges with other groups. It said in June 2019 that only 17 nations had such plans.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to hit net zero emissions by 2060 © Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Getty

This surge in commitments would have shocked the architects of the 2015 Paris climate accord. The pact was only agreed after Saudi Arabia and other fossil fuel producers fought off efforts to include such a clearly-worded deadline for bringing global emissions down to virtually zero.Targets do not equal action, of course, and this welter of net zero pledges has yet to put a serious dent in global carbon emissions. The UN says governments still plan to produce more than twice as much coal, oil and gas in 2030 than the amount that would meet the safest temperature goals in the Paris accord.The fact that Australia’s net zero target envisages ongoing coal and gas production makes it a “sham of a plan” when tangible action is clearly needed to cut emissions by 2030, says Adam Bandt, parliamentary leader of the Australian Greens party, which hopes to hold the balance of power in Canberra after an election due by May 2022.Scott Morrison has committed Australia to hitting net zero by 2050. Four years ago he waved a lump of coal in parliament to mock his opponents’ support for renewable energy © ReutersSharing power The existence of these pledges has, however, unleashed a new phase of effort in some countries to turn climate commitments into concrete action. Exhibit one is the Democratic administration of US president Joe Biden. In the wake of devastating wildfires, floods and heatwaves, and scientific reports showing the world must slash emissions as soon as the end of this decade, Biden has made tackling climate change an even bigger priority than his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.“Biden came in with the most ambitious agenda we’ve ever had from a US president,” says Jennifer Morgan, head of Greenpeace International. It is difficult to think of many other world leaders who have taken Biden’s all-of-government approach to make climate change policy a priority in all departments and agencies, she adds. But she questions whether it will be enough, pointing to a clean electricity scheme deemed a cornerstone of Biden’s plan to decarbonise the power sector by 2035, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

A climate change protester mocks West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who had blocked President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda © J Scott Applewhite/AP

The measure, part of a huge domestic spending package in Congress, would have rewarded power companies that increased their share of renewables each year, and punished those that did not. But it was cut from the plans after resistance from Joe Manchin, a 74-year-old Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia with outsized influence in a Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. The White House has had to find other ways to cut emissions to give Biden credibility at COP26.A climate crunch time also looms in western Europe, where green politicians are winning vote shares that were unimaginable in 1972, when the world’s first green parties emerged in New Zealand and Tasmania.“Green parties’ performance in western European general elections is on average the highest it has ever been,” says Zack Grant, a researcher at Oxford university. It may be about to grow even higher, even if mainstream parties keep stealing, adopting and adapting green party policies.A 2018 study that Grant co-authored, of elections over 45 years from 1970 in 32 countries (Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia), showed that such “theft” by major parties can depress the vote for relatively new and unknown green parties. “But established green parties benefit from traditional parties highlighting environmental policies, because it legitimises and amplifies measures that greens can credibly claim to own,” says Grant. “The clue is in their name.”

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Green parties now have a share of power in six European coalition governments: Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg. They are on track for an even bigger prize in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, where they are in talks to form a three-way coalition government after winning 14.8 per cent of the vote in September’s election. That is more than double the 6.7 per cent of votes the Greens won in 1998, when they first entered a ruling coalition with Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats, in a move that made their leader, Joschka Fischer, foreign minister. This year, the Greens could again share power with the Social Democrats, as well as the liberal Free Democrats, a combination that promises to make Germany — a large consumer of coal — a major climate policy test case.Annalena Baerbock of Germany’s Green party is in coalition talks with the Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats © Michele Tantussi/ReutersA 12-page paper setting out what the three parties have agreed so far highlights two crucial questions that are likely to intensify as greener governments try to turn net zero pledges into action: how fast will emissions be cut and who will shoulder the cost?The parties agreed to Green demands to accelerate the planned exit from coal-fired power — “ideally” to 2030, from the current deadline of 2038. Solar panels would also be mandatory on new commercial buildings and 2 per cent of German land would be set aside for wind farms.But the Greens failed to get their way on loosening the “debt brake”, Germany’s constitutional limit on new borrowing, which the fiscally prudent Free Democrats have always defended. During the election campaign, the Greens said modernising Germany and making it carbon-neutral within 20 years would require public investments of up to €500bn over the next decade and urged a loosening of the brake to cover the cost.So where will the money come from now? “The bulk of the climate investment will be private investment,” says Sven Giegold, a German Green member of the European Parliament involved in the negotiations. New regulations, not public borrowing, would drive investment in clean cars, green steel and low-carbon buildings, he says.Where public investment is needed, it could come from sources such as Germany’s state-backed KfW development bank and new or existing public companies like the country’s national railway, which he says could borrow without breaching debt brake rules.

The Greens are set to be part of a coalition government in Germany — one of the biggest consumers of coal in the world — making it a major climate policy test case © Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty

Green vs growth Germany symbolises a direction of travel towards emissions cuts that sometimes seems unstoppable. Even Rupert Murdoch’s influential Australian newspaper empire abruptly began campaigning in October for a “net zero future” that many of its top commentators have spent years claiming is a “fraudulent concept” pushed by “global warming hysterics”.Yet the road is still likely to be bumpy, even in countries where bipartisan support for climate action has been evident for years.In the UK, Tony Blair’s Labour government introduced a pioneering law in 2008 to set a legally binding target to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared with 1990 levels.Theresa May, a Conservative prime minister, went further in 2019 by making the UK the first G7 country to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. But as her successor, Boris Johnson, has begun to set out more detailed plans for achieving that target, he faces resistance from within his own party. “The overall policy appears to be in danger of making us poorer and colder and less able to make our way in the world,” says Steve Baker, a Conservative MP who recently helped launch a new Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs. It is taking aim at what he calls “the astronomical costs” of net zero plans and their impact on the poor.

The Conservative government’s plans for achieving net zero in the UK are facing resistance from within the party © Hannah McKay/Reuters

The group’s 40-odd members have targeted government efforts to phase out domestic gas boilers and are now focused on levies that Baker says will deliberately make gas more expensive “when it’s expensive enough already”.He recently became a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation think-tank that for years questioned whether climate science was “settled”. Prominent members of the Foundation recently set up the Net Zero Watch campaign group to highlight what they say are “the serious implications of expensive and poorly considered climate change policies”.The Foundation’s claims resonate at a time when energy costs are spiralling in the UK and abroad. Yet Baker and his allies have a problem: growing voter concern about the ever more visible impacts of climate change, even in the highly polarised US.Researchers there say that, in a year of extreme heatwaves, droughts, fires and floods, an all-time high 70 per cent of Americans are worried about global warming. For the first time, a majority also believe Americans are being harmed by climate change “right now”.Even in Baker’s constituency in Wycombe, in the south of England, which has voted in a Conservative MP at every election since 1951, 71 per cent of respondents agreed Britain cannot afford not to implement policies to tackle climate change, according to a September poll.Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor in the opposition UK Labour party, has promised to invest £28bn every year until 2030 to tackle climate change and become Britain’s first “green chancellor”.

Climate activists ‘set fire’ to George Square with an art installation in Glasgow ahead of the COP26 summit © PA

Yet a larger battle may lie ahead that goes well beyond extra money and net zero goals. Mainstream parties, whether left or rightwing, are generally part of a “green growth” consensus that says climate change can be tackled with new technologies and other market-driven environmental actions that allow the global economy to keep growing.But many of the green leaders who have been devising the climate policies that mainstream parties now champion say this style of green growth is a recipe for the unsustainable use of natural resources and should give way to a focus on natural, and human, prosperity.A true green chancellor would recognise the need for a “complete reframing” of the way the economy is run, says Caroline Lucas, the only Green party MP ever elected in the UK. “If you have an economy that is measured solely on its progress towards GDP growth, then you’re setting yourself up to fail,” she says.It is hard enough to decarbonise today’s global economy, she adds. Imagine doing it by 2050 with the same levels of growth that have already led to widespread environmental harm.“The way that you judge whether another party is serious about the environment is not so much looking at the environment policies in their manifesto, but the economic policies,” adds Lucas. “Unless those fundamentally change, then in a sense all you’re doing is adding green window dressing to a system that is fundamentally unsustainable.”Climate Capital

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