Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, has a Green foreign minister. Chile, the world’s biggest copper producing country, is led by a president focused on building a greener society. In Brazil, an agricultural superpower, the fate of the Amazon may be decided by this year’s election.
There are green shoots everywhere, but it remains one of the puzzles of democratic politics: climate change is a widely acknowledged threat, delivering powerful shocks across the world, but has been slow to break through to the ballot box.
Australia, which has elections this Saturday, offers an example of a country both addicted to fossil fuels – which account for around 90 per cent of its energy consumption – and subject to extreme weather exacerbated by climate change: devastating wildfires, droughts and floods. Among rich countries, it has one of the weakest plans for achieving net zero by 2050. Yet, at the last federal elections, the Greens held a single seat in its House of Representatives.
So what holds Greens back?
Bread and butter. Climate has rarely been the defining issue in elections. Especially in times of economic insecurity, it is often trumped by the need for jobs and stability. “There’s no doubt, if you look at where Greens have got into parliament and stayed in parliament, it is relatively affluent democracies,” said Professor Neil Carter, a specialist in environmental politics and policy at the University of York.
Extreme weather events. Ironically, these can sometimes delay or side-track pressure for action on emissions. “In the previous catastrophic bushfire events such as the 2009 Black Saturday [that killed 173 people], the discourse at the time was ‘don’t talk about climate change – don’t make this political’,” said Dr Amy Nethery, of Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. Dr Nethery noted that this shifted after the vast bushfires of Australia’s Black Summer in 2019-2020. “People were saying: this is what climate change looks like.’” Research published in Nature Climate Change suggests experience of extremes can increase public support for climate action, “but only under favourable economic conditions”.
Electoral systems. Australia’s Greens won 10 percent of the vote for the country’s lower house in the last federal elections, making them the third biggest party by vote share – but this did not translate into power, or significant influence. By contrast, New Zealand has switched to proportional representation since the 1996 election, and now has two Green ministers as part of a cooperation agreement with the Labour government.
In this weekend’s Australian elections, climate finally appears to have taken the central place its public support merits. A survey by the Lowy Institute last year showed six in ten Australians thought climate change a “serious and pressing problem”. Australia repealed its carbon tax in 2014, but a majority of those polled supported putting a price on carbon emissions.
One indication of this renewed focus on the environment is a wave of climate-focused independent candidates – called the “Teal independents” because of their blue-green colours and the fact they are running in traditionally conservative seats. Many of the teals are women, a contrast with the aggressively macho culture of conventional politics in Australia: candidates include Zoe Daniel, a former TV journalist, and Allegra Spender, a businesswoman.
Green politics appears resurgent elsewhere in the world this year. Gustavo Petro, the candidate leading polls in Colombia’s presidential elections this month, plans to end oil exploration. After three years in which environmental protections have been gutted, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has a narrow lead over Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, where elections take place in October.
Green parties that achieve power often do so as junior partners, limiting their influence on policy. This year, environmental politics appears to be seeping into the mainstream as never before, with a broader greening of politics that is encouraging all politicians to take the climate more seriously.
A global transition
In episode four of our myth-busting podcast series with the Centre for Net Zero and Octopus Energy, Lucy and Giles explore how every country – from China to Kenya – is going through its own transformation.
Campaigners have written to Emmanuel Macron, the French president, to warn that EU rules controlling methane could be watered down by lobbyists. Methane, which can leak from natural gas plants and pipelines, is 80 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere in the first 20 years after release. In December, the European Commission proposed a ban on companies intentionally burning off or releasing methane. But in the letter to Macron, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council, NGOs said member states hadn’t yet brought up how to measure and mitigate methane emissions from imports. Energy companies are making known their displeasure with the proposals, too – they say detecting methane leaks and repairing faults will be too expensive. They may find the cost of inaction is even higher.
Energy security seems to be trumping climate change in the government’s list of priorities for the North Sea. The Telegraph reported on Friday that the government wants to class natural gas as “green” in order to spur fossil fuel production, and the energy regulator is set to approve a new Shell gas field it rejected just last year on environmental grounds. (At peak operation in five years time, the Jackdaw gas field will meet just 1.8 per cent of UK demand.) Meanwhile, Labour is today calling for a vote on introducing a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas companies with unexpectedly high profits – an idea that has proved divisive among the Tories.
Prospective homeowners take note: one in five standalone family homes in the USA could be hit by a wildfire in the next 30 years, according to data from First Street Foundation’s new Wildfire Model. Together, those homes are worth $8.8 trillion. The data, published yesterday, will be integrated with Realtor.com, a property platform, to give buyers and insurers a wildfire-risk assessment on every property, ranked from 1 (minimal) to 10 (extreme). Today, 20 million properties have at least a moderate risk – meaning they have up to a six per cent chance of being caught by wildfire in that time. Wildfires are becoming more costly: in the last five years, they have been linked to $81.7 billion of damage in the last five years alone – that’s 66 per cent of the total since 1980.
science and tech
Flight of fancy
The UK government’s evolving aviation strategy could put emissions targets at risk by putting too much hope in technology and alternative fuels, a report by Element Energy says. The government has committed to a 78 per cent cut in economy-wide emissions by 2035, with a net zero goal for 2050. According to Element Energy, the least risky route would be to stop airports growing and dissuade travellers from flying with policies like a frequent flyer levy or reforms to air passenger duty. Such steps towards demand-reduction are, however, missing from the government’s plan. If you missed last week’s Climate Summit, do listen back to the session on this topic and let us know what you think.
Thanks for reading.
Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday.
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