Why Europeans are rising up against Net Zero

In 2023, punitive green policies pushed the public to breaking point.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Deputy editor

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK

In many ways, it is incredible they got away with it for so long. For the past decade or so, mainstream politicians across Europe have stopped promising to improve their voters’ living standards. Instead, they have boasted about their plans to limit them. They have extolled the virtues of a higher cost of living, deindustrialisation and restrictions on personal freedoms. And they expected most people wouldn’t mind or perhaps even notice – because all this was to be done in the name of ‘saving the planet’ from climate change. But in 2023, that elite green consensus came crashing down to Earth.

The growing public anger towards Net Zero has started to shake a complacent political elite. Indeed, opposition to greenism is now one of the key drivers of European populism. It has brought people out on to the streets – with farmers’ protests in the Netherlands, Ireland and, most recently, Germany. And it has inspired a number of revolts at the ballot box.

The Netherlands was once deemed to be a ‘sensible’ country, immune to the kind of populist uprisings that had previously rocked the rest of Europe. Yet today, it is at the forefront of the global fightback against the elites’ green designs. Dutch farmers have been in open revolt against their government for four years now. Back in the spring, hundreds of farmers defied a government ban to drive their tractors to the Hague. Tens of thousands of protesters also gathered in the Hague’s Zuiderpark, chanting ‘No farmers, no food’.

They were demonstrating against the Dutch government’s stringent restrictions on nitrogen emissions – just one of the many destructive policies the government has implemented to meet the EU’s climate targets. According to the government’s own forecasts, the nitrogen policy could lead to the closure of some 3,000 farms. Cattle and dairy farms will be worst affected, as cow manure is a major source of nitrogen, but farmers also need nitrogen-rich fertilisers to grow crops at scale.

You do not need to be a farmer to see that this green war on agriculture will have catastrophic consequences – not just for the livelihoods of those soon-to-be unemployed farmers, but also for the food supply, for people’s ability to feed ourselves. Dutch voters hit back against these irrational nitrogen restrictions in March’s provincial elections, by voting en masse for the Farmer-Citizen Movement. This upstart agrarian party won the highest share of the vote in all 12 Dutch provinces. Then, in November, hard-right firebrand and climate sceptic Geert Wilders scored a shock election victory, trouncing his nearest rival, Frans Timmermans, the architect and face of the EU’s climate policies.

The pursuit of punitive climate policies is upending politics beyond the Netherlands, too. In Germany, a row over heat pumps recently threatened to bring down the government, in which the Green Party is a junior coalition partner. Germany’s proposed ‘heating law’ would have banned the installation of new oil and gas boilers. Instead, electric-powered heat pumps would become mandatory, despite the fact that they cost, on average, €17,000 more to install than a regular boiler – even when government subsidies are taken into account. What’s more, this cost was to be imposed on a nation that is already reeling from a major energy crisis, where household bills are among the highest in Europe and where critical industries are closing down due to exorbitant energy costs.

After a fierce backlash, particularly from the right-populist AfD, the heating law was watered down significantly. Nevertheless, the ‘heat hammer’, as it was dubbed by the press, has severely wounded the government’s popularity, exposed the cracks in a weak coalition government and helped the AfD surge in the polls. Meanwhile, the Green Party, once Germany’s most popular party, now languishes in fourth place.

Europe’s turn against Net Zero has been impossible to ignore. Some mainstream parties have tried – cynically – to ride the tide of public anger. In the UK, the floundering Conservative Party managed to steal a rare by-election victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip in outer London. It beat Labour, the presumptive winners, by opposing London mayor Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ charge – a punitive green tax on older vehicles. The surprise win prompted UK prime minister Rishi Sunak to roll back some of his government’s Net Zero policies and promise a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to climate change.

Around the same time, across the Channel, French president Emmanuel Macron called for a ‘pause’ in new environmental rules. He had already learned the hard way that the public will not put up with stringent green policies. Back in 2018 and 2019, an eco-tax on fuel sparked the year-long gilets jaunes protests – the most significant public rebellion in France since les événements of May 1968.

For now, these u-turns have been small and limited. Proposed taxes and bans have only been postponed or watered down. Despite some of the green-sceptical rhetoric, mainstream European parties remain committed to Net Zero, regardless of how much economic damage it is set to inflict. They will need to be reminded, again and again, whether at the ballot box or on the streets, that the green agenda is intolerable. There is, after all, no such thing as a ‘pragmatic’ or ‘pain-free’ path to Net Zero.

The political class needs to recognise that voters do not want to pay higher energy bills, pay through the nose to use their cars, or install costly, unreliable heat pumps instead of trusted oil and gas boilers. As the revolts of the past year have shown, no amount of talk about ‘saving the planet’ is going to change that. The public will not be fooled by attempts to brand austerity as ‘green’.

In 2024, we need a new politics that puts people’s living standards front and centre. The abandonment of Net Zero would be the perfect place to start.

Fraser Myers is deputy editor at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech UK


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