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Climate Scored Some Quasi-Victories in Europe

What parliamentary elections in France and the U.K. mean for everyone else.

A voter and wind turbines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

While America has been distracted by its suddenly-very-real upcoming election, two other important political stories have been unfolding across the pond. The results of last week’s parliamentary votes in France and the United Kingdom have the power to sway global climate policy — and they might even contain lessons for the U.S. about the rise (or fall) of the far-right.

What happened in France?

In June, French President Emmanuel Macron called snap elections, and the far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen was widely expected to achieve a majority in the country’s 577-seat National Assembly. Instead, the New Popular Front, a hastily-formed alliance between the hard left, Greens, and Socialists, came out on top in a runoff, followed by the centrist Ensemble (which includes Macron’s Renaissance party) and the National Rally in a distant third. Because no party won the 289 seats needed to gain control of the chamber, the left and center now have to form a coalition government, which means ideological compromise — something that’s distinctly un-French. “We're not the Germans, we're not the Spanish, we're not the Italians — we don't do coalitions,” one French political commentator toldSky News.

What did the National Rally want for climate?

Climate change wasn’t a big theme, but the National Rally’s proposals certainly had experts nervous. The party tapped into simmering discontent among some demographics — farmers, in particular — who feel unfairly burdened by new regulations in service of the European Union’s ambitious agenda, known as the Green Deal, including a goal to cut the bloc’s net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. If it had won, the party planned to dismantle France’s energy efficiency rules, roll back a 2035 ban on new gas-powered cars, block new wind farms, do away with low-emission zones, and transform electricity trade. France is already the EU’s third biggest emitter, and the EU as a whole is responsible for about 9% of global CO2 emissions, although emissions have been falling, especially in the energy sector.

So is European climate policy safe?

As the dust settles in France, the biggest danger to climate policy now is stalemate. The lackluster results for the far right are no doubt a relief to the climate conscious. “We have avoided a catastrophe,” Alain Fischer, president of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, toldNature. The winning NFP, for its part, backs the Green Deal’s emissions targets and wants France to become “the European leader in renewable energies” through offshore wind power and the development of hydroelectric power. It also calls for the “creation of an international court for climate and environmental justice.” But the next several months are likely to be chaotic as the parties tussle over what the government should look like, and there is no deadline for these decisions to be made. The leadership limbo could bring political paralysis at a time when the EU is just getting its bearings following bloc-wide parliamentary elections — which, by the way, saw the Greens lose seats in lots of places. In response, the non-profit Climate Group put out a statement calling for the French government to “commit to safeguarding the EU Green Deal and ensuring a sustainable future for the continent.” The good news is that a large majority of EU voters want to see more climate action.

What about in the U.K.?

The Labour Party won the general election in a landslide, bringing an end to 14 years of Conservative Party rule. During his tenure, former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down key net-zero strategies, delayed a ban on new combustion engine vehicles, scrapped energy efficiency standards, and approved a large new oil field in the North Sea. His party also pulled low-emission zones into the culture wars in a desperate attempt to win over voters. None of this played to his advantage. According to Desmog, two-thirds of the Conservative members of Parliament who were anti-net zero lost their seats, including the former energy secretary. “With a clear mandate for climate action,” wrote climate change think tank E3G, “all eyes are now on Labour to deliver.”

What does Labour want to do on climate?

New Prime Minister Keir Starmer has pledged to turn the U.K. into a “clean energy superpower” by doubling onshore wind, tripling solar power, and quadrupling offshore wind by 2030. He also plans to upgrade the grid to speed the rollout of clean energy projects, while at the same time denying new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. He wants to establish a publicly owned clean energy firm and decarbonize the power sector by 2030. And he plans to reinstate the 2030 ban on new gas cars. The goals are lofty, and meeting them will “extensive change across every sector of the economy,” wrote Carbon Brief. But Labour seems to be wasting little time. Days after taking power, the new government scrapped a ban on onshore wind farms that had been in place since 2015 and which the new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves called “absurd.”

Can the U.K. be a global climate leader?

The U.K. accounts for about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That might be paltry compared to, say, the U.S. (13.5%) or China (32%), but it has a chance now to use its global influence and proximity to Europe to keep the needle moving in the right direction. That goes especially if it is nudged by the Green party, which surprised everyone by quadrupling its number of seats in Parliament (albeit to just four). As The New York Timesnoted, Britain is where the industrial revolution began, so “the speed and scale of Britain’s energy transition is likely to be closely watched by other industrialized countries and emerging economies alike.”

Are there lessons in either of these elections for the U.S.?

What’s clear from both of these cases is that people really care about climate policy and are willing to vote with that in mind. That can swing either way, though, depending on the particular set of policies and how they affect the electorate. As extreme weather intensifies, however, it may become more difficult for far-right parties to minimize the significance of climate change. “We need to recognize that extreme weather is politicizing people against this climate denial,” said Paul Dickinson, founder of CDP, an emissions disclosure platform, and co-host of the podcast Outrage + Optimism. “It is the Achilles heel of the extreme right that they’re opposed to the realities of extreme weather. That’s how I think if we’re organized and disciplined, we will defeat them.”

Jessica  Hullinger profile image

Jessica Hullinger

Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London.


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