The departure of EU ‘climate’ Commissioner Frans Timmermans—who will be taking his chances in the upcoming Dutch election—may well be a pivotal moment for the future of ‘green’ politics. Timmermans is the face of the European Union’s drive for ever more intrusive regulations that are meant to combat climate change—regulations that are being met with resistance from member states. Despite the Commission’s best efforts to push the Green Deal, exorbitant economic costs and voter discontent have sparked a renewed interest in nuclear energy throughout Europe.
Interestingly, the same EU Commission that is so keen to impose huge economic costs for the sake of reducing CO2 emissions is less than enthusiastic about embracing nuclear power. Nuclear is the one energy source that can lower emissions while maintaining our living standards, particularly given the widely documented shortcomings of wind and solar power. In March, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that nuclear power was not the “strategic” option for EU decarbonisation. It should be noted that by taking this stance, the Commission is in violation of the Euratom Treaty, which requires the EU to promote nuclear power. Despite the Commission’s resistance, the ‘nuclear alliance’ of EU member states, led by France, recently secured a success when the European Parliament rejected a motion to oppose the inclusion of nuclear and gas as environmentally sustainable energy sources.
Austrian academic Ralph Schoellhammer documents that “there is a Europe wide push back against net zero.” He explained that the Germans are now forced to authorize new gas-fired power plants, even though several key positions in government are held by the Greens. Interestingly, the only way to get the EU to approve the subsidies for investors is to frame these energy sources as a backup in case wind and solar power do not suffice.
It would be embarrassing for the German government to admit that ‘eco-friendly’ energy could fail. It has been adamant that there is no cause for shortage concerns, despite the closure of Germany’s last nuclear power plants. It is ridiculous that taxpayers need to finance subsidies because of a deliberate government policy to shut down those plants. This decision was made by a government led by Angela Merkel, who u-turned over nuclear power following the hysteria over the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
However, Japan is going all in on nuclear power again, mirroring the nuclear renaissance in the United States. This makes perfect sense. As well-known British environmental activist George Monbiot wrote at the time of the disaster:
Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power. … A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
This view has been vindicated. So far, there is only 1 confirmed cancer death attributed to radiation exposure, following opinions from a panel of radiologists and other experts. When looking at death rates per unit of electricity production, nuclear power is more safe than wind power, and only slightly less safe than the safest energy source, solar power.
Apart from economic concerns forcing politicians to u-turn on radical climate policies and energy experiments, voter dissatisfaction is also playing a role. The Dutch Farmer party’s massive victory in provincial elections earlier this year indirectly led to the collapse of the coalition government of PM Mark Rutte, who is leaving politics.
The movement has spread to neighbouring Belgium, where the restrictions are also causing political uproar. Farmers have managed to convince the Christian democratic coalition in the Flemish regional government to support them. At some point, this may end up at the EU policy level, whether Eurocrats like it or not.
At the heart of this is a protest movement against EU-imposed nitrogen restrictions. While national policy has ‘gold plated’ these requirements, the only sustainable solution is to either water down the EU requirements or to allow member states to alter land areas that are designated as sensitive nature reserve, something which the EU legal machinery has obstructed until now.
Lessons from across the Channel
In light of this upheaval, Europe should take note of interesting developments taking place across the Channel. In Westminster, politicians have started to diverge from the progressive climate-change policy consensus. In July, the ruling Conservative Party suffered a big defeat in by-elections, but thanks to local protest against the hated expansion of a ‘low emission zone,’ the party was able to hold on to Uxbridge, which used to be Boris Johnson’s seat. The message seems to have been understood by Tory leadership, who have been concerned by the party’s terrible polling. In response to the Uxbridge election, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary and critic of net-zero targets, noted that “high-cost green policies are not popular,” and urged the party to delay moves on phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles. It is perhaps no coincidence that the British government has begun to make noises about abandoning its policy to phase out petrol cars by 2030.
However, the Tories are not the only party that is changing its tune. Labour leader, Keir Starmer, widely expected to become Britain’s next PM, recently stated “I hate tree-huggers.” He is reportedly unhappy about his party’s ‘eco-warriors,’ because he received a lot of blowback—both from within his party and from trade unions—about plans to ban new oil and natural gas exploration in the North Sea.
On one important topic, the UK has already materially diverged from the EU’s environmental policy consensus. When it comes to deforestation, Britain simply recognizes the standards of its trading partners, as opposed to the EU, which recently decided to impose new bureaucracy on palm oil exporters—primarily Indonesia and Malaysia—in their war against deforestation. The EU imposed these requirements despite the fact that Malaysia has already countered this trend with domestic certification schemes like the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Board. The certification policy has had positive effects, as primary forest loss in Malaysia decreased by almost 70% between 2014 and 2020, according to Global Forest Watch.
Due to its liberal approach and in return for completely scrapping import tariffs for palm oil, the UK was allowed entry into the new trans-Pacific trade deal CPTPP (The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). Meanwhile, the EU’s trade talks with South East Asia were frozen in June due to its rigid stance, and the relationship remains tense.
Europe’s shifting consensus
An ever wider gap is growing between the German government coalition and public opinion. In fact, over the last two years, support for the climate and environmental movement has declined by 50% in Germany. Those stating that this movement “basically has my support” declined from 68% in 2021 to 34% in 2023. Climate activist groups, like Just Stop Oil, are a key factor in this diminishing support. Their obnoxious tactics—which include human roadblocks that have prohibited people from hospital visits, getting to work, and daily life—haven’t ingratiated them or their cause with the public.
In response to voter discontent and economic woes, clear policy changes are now visible in various European countries. While the German Greens have managed to block radical departure from the current consensus, Sweden is now choosing nuclear power—a reversal of 40 years policy—and lowering its fossil-fuel reduction targets.
The Belgian government has just secured a deal with the French owner of Belgian nuclear power reactors to keep some online for a few more years. The Greens in government were forced to accept this. Italy is also looking at nuclear again and a brand new nuclear plant was opened in Finland earlier this year. New nuclear capacity has been announced in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and France.
Poland’s ministry of climate and environment has just given a decision-in-principle to construct a nuclear power plant. The country is also fiercely resisting the EU’s new climate policies and is even challenging the 2035 combustion engine phaseout at the European Court of Justice.
Furthermore, newly proposed mandatory EU renovation targets are facing increased opposition from member states. Italy is one of its fiercest opponents, as 60% of the country’s building stock may be affected. One diplomat has called this aspiration “crazy and beyond the reach of most” EU countries.
Last but not least, the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest faction in Parliament, is railing against some of the newly proposed EU environmental regulations, having abandoned its previous complete support for the Green Deal. Clearly, European elections in 2024 are already exerting an effect on policy. The results may further undermine the current climate policy consensus.