Two countries in Europe are failing to protect the climate. There are various reasons for this, but it also shows that the West has made a big mistake when it comes to climate protection.
If anyone can achieve climate change, it will probably be Sweden. With the CO2 tax introduced in 1991, emissions targets that exceed Paris resolutions and unprecedented waste disposal, the country has strived to become a climate model student. In international rankings, such as the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI), Scandinavians are at the top – led by Sweden. But now the government in Stockholm is stepping on the brakes.
This week, the right-wing coalition cut 259 million crowns (around 22 million euros) for climate and environmental protection in the budget for 2024. In addition, taxes on gasoline and diesel will be reduced. The country can therefore forget its traffic goals set for 2030. It is estimated that the tax cut will result in an additional six to ten million tonnes of CO2 being emitted by then.
And Sweden is not an isolated case in Europe: almost at the same time, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he would postpone Great Britain’s climate goals. The end of combustion engines will not come in 2030, but five years later; Sunak also wants to delay the switch from gas and oil heating to heat pumps. And taxes on meat, flights and holidays have been thrown straight into the bin, the Prime Minister announced, arguing that Great Britain has already more than fulfilled its climate protection targets.
Compared to other G7 countries, this is also true. The British have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions more than anyone else since 1990. One in six new British cars this year was an electric car, more than the international average.
Economy beats climate protection
The two examples show once again that climate protection has a difficult time in the current global political situation. Sweden justifies its budget cuts with the current economic challenges. Finance Minister Elisabeth Svantesson warned of rising unemployment and high inflation in the coming years. In addition, there were problems with internal security and the war in Ukraine, said the finance minister – not without emphasizing that the government would at least address the economic problems with more money for social benefits and tax cuts. And: “Economically, Sweden shrank by more than 2 percent in the second quarter of 2023 compared to the previous year – only in Estonia did economic output decline even more,” says Jens Marquardt, who researches international climate policy at the TU Darmstadt, among other things.
A current study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which was published in the journal “Nature Climate Change”, also shows that climate protection usually loses out in economic crisis situations. To do this, the researchers analyzed the attitudes of people in the United States and 15 European countries between 2000 and 2019. Economic setbacks can therefore lead people to view climate protection more critically. If income, living standards and jobs are threatened, environmental protection quickly takes a back seat, according to the study’s findings.
Politicians take advantage of this during election campaigns. Prime Minister Sunak denied that he wanted to improve the previously poor poll numbers with the anti-climate plans. According to a quick survey by the opinion research institute YouGov, 50 percent of Brits support the postponed Brenner shutdown. Only 34 percent of the more than 3,000 respondents are in favor of continuing to pursue the current climate goals. And in the by-election in July, the Tories most likely won in the Uxbridge constituency near London because the candidate there had campaigned against the area becoming a low-emission zone where only low-emission vehicles have access. Many residents who commute to London would likely have had to buy a new car if Labor won.
While voters are probably honoring the British government’s anti-climate policy with votes, there is criticism from business. The car manufacturer Ford, for example, found drastic words. In a statement, it accused Sunak of disregarding the needs of the industry. Critical voices also warned that the British Prime Minister’s plans would jeopardize investments that had already been made in the transition to e-mobility.
Climate policy has so far been too economical
When it came to climate protection, politicians in the past have primarily made the economy responsible. Take Sweden, for example: “The country has built a reputation as a climate model student under the premise, ‘We can do this through technological progress,'” says climate policy scientist Marquardt. This is also a logical step because most emissions arise in industry. In Great Britain, too, the focus was on the economy, as shown by the reactions to Sunak’s climate plans.
But this leaves many governments, including the traffic light coalition in Germany, dependent on the people. Marquardt warns: “A climate-friendly society doesn’t mean that we put wind turbines everywhere and then that’s it.”
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Making the fight against global warming attractive to citizens is a mammoth task because it involves sacrifice and redistribution. Several surveys have already shown that the majority of citizens support the climate protection goals – until they themselves are affected. And it is precisely then that climate protection is crowned with failures, as Habeck’s heating law or the mobility debate show.
Promoting electric cars doesn’t solve the social problem either. Subsidies only reach population groups that can already afford such cars; everyone else continues to rely on combustion engines. “And telling people that they will have to get by without a car from 2030 would be political suicide,” says Marquardt.
A failed climate change would be fatal
This means that Europe is at a crossroads: countries must clarify whether they capitulate in the fight against climate change or involve their citizens. “It is clear to everyone that something has to happen. But the question remains as to what socially just climate policy can look like,” says Marquardt. One example is Austria: With the climate bonus, the Alpine republic shows how those responsible for emissions are made to pay and the population benefits from climate protection.
But that doesn’t solve all problems. Climate protection as a social policy remains extremely sensitive, especially because it involves redistribution and bans. It’s not just Germans who are critical of this when it comes to driving. According to Marquardt, many parties are afraid of linking climate protection to social issues “because that could mean that they won’t survive the next election campaign politically.”
This is particularly true in Sweden and Great Britain. However, the political scientist believes that cutting back on climate protection is a dangerous signal. If even Sweden fails to implement an effective climate protection policy, then no one else can, many other countries could argue. Marquardt fears that this will not only affect Europe. “The countries in the Global South would also rightly ask themselves why they should make any more effort.”
Sources: “”, “”, “”, “”, , with material from DPA and AFP
I have been working in the news industry for over 6 years, first as a reporter and now as an editor. I have covered politics extensively, and my work has appeared in major newspapers and online news outlets around the world. In addition to my writing, I also contribute regularly to 24 Hours World.