Waking up to reality: There is a Europe wide push back against net zero

The EDF energy offshore wind farm on January 30, 2023 in Redcar, England. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty)


It is the very nature of reality to always reassert itself. Or as the Roman poet Horace put it in the first century BC: “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but still she will always come back.”

This idea will also apply to Europe’s economic and energy policies at some point. No matter how often politicians from Berlin or Brussels are promoting green new deals or a Europe powered almost exclusively by wind and solar, reality starts to fight back. Germany, for example, has been promoting Tesla’s plans to expand their Gigafactory in the state of Brandenburg, supposedly demonstrating how job creation and the energy transition can go hand in hand. In truth, the much flaunted promise by Tesla to power its factory exclusively with renewable energy is about to be broken. In order to start operations, the US company plans to build its own gas-fired power plant to ensure an uninterrupted and reliable supply of energy. 

It is not only Musk’s Tesla that is breaking promises: After shutting down their entire nuclear fleet, Germany’s economic minister has just realised that the country will need 50 new gas-fired power plants to avoid future blackouts. Luckily for him, regasification ports for LNG are being built quicker than renewables and the necessary infrastructure to run them, particularly transmission lines. They are nowhere near being built as quickly as they would have to for a successful energy transition towards renewables. 

It is not only the law of physics that will demand a return to realism: The upcoming election in the Netherlands will pit the pro-agriculture Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) against the climate zealots of Frans Timmermans, who decided to leave his post as the EU’s Commissioner for Climate Action and return to Dutch politics. Only founded in 2019, the BBB has become a major force in Dutch politics, primarily due to their criticism of what it views as environmental overreach. The agriculture lobby is becoming more critical of the EU’s climate goals. Many of the proposed policies would directly affect how much land farmers could use and what kinds of fertiliser they could apply. Similarly, resistance is growing in Ireland, where farmers are protesting plans to kill up to 200,000 cows in order to reduce methane emissions. 

But this new resistance is not limited to the farming sector: In London, the Conservative Party managed to cling on to a parliamentary seat on the edge of the capital in last week’s by-elections largely thanks to Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to extend his so-called “Ultra Low Emissions Zones”, making commuting via car more expensive. Although it has not yet reached Dutch levels of prominence, voices critical of Britain’s commitment to net zero are getting louder within both the Labour and Tory leadership

The simple fact is that energy policies have no delivered what they promised: Cheaper energy, a lowering of inflation, and good paying “green” jobs. Offshore wind projects are being cancelled, and even the pro-energy transition German weekly magazine Der Spiegel admitted that “wind and sun alone are not enough.”

It seems that only the national conservative AfD (Alternative for Germany) is feeling any wind in its sails. It is currently the second party in German polls and could well become the largest if current trends continue. The AfD is feeding off its decade old opposition to the energy transition that until 2022 seemed to be an outlier in the German party landscape, but has since then become mainstream. This is highlighted by the party’s support for nuclear energy, one area where the majority position of Germans has switched from being against to being in favour – vindicating at least one position of the populist movement. 

As could be expected, other countries are taking note: Italy under the leadership of Georgia Meloni has pledged to pursue a more pragmatic and less ideological approach towards climate change, while Sweden’s new government has abandoned its 100 per cent renewable target by 2045. It will continue to support the further development of nuclear power.

Traditional parties that do not want to lose an ever larger share of the vote to parties on the political fringe will sooner or later have to take this new scepticism towards environmental and climate goals seriously. Most people will not vote for parties that deliver lower living standards in exchange for climate policies, and assuming that most politicians are opportunists, it will ultimately be the climate agenda that is going to take the backseat. It is no longer a question of when, but only how fast.