Can Europe Make It?

Voting for the climate?

Climate policy should be a major consideration for voters heading for the polls in May’s European parliamentary elections.

Olaf Corry
5 March 2014

Climate change has formed an increasingly important part of the EU's foreign policy. Demotix/Gregorio B. Dantes Jr. Some rights

A recent poll suggests that by Euro-election night in May, UKIP is likely to move from second to first place. That means that a party led by self-declared climate change sceptics may well win a major UK election.

UKIP’s energy spokesman Roger Helmer (an MEP who defected from the Conservatives) bases his party’s energy policy on the idea that ‘there are increasing doubts about the theory of man-made climate change’ and that “climate change” (in inverted commas) is ‘so last century’. The climate is showing natural variability and anyway, the UK’s global contribution to global greenhouse emissions is negligible. UKIP’s recently sacked leader in Scotland Christopher Monckton is a stalwart climate sceptic who warned that the UN Copenhagen climate conference was a plan to create a ‘communist world government’.

Given this, why is EU climate policy not more of an issue for the up-coming Euro elections?

There are several reasons why it ought to be.

Firstly, the balance of power in the European Parliament between the climate committed and climate sceptics may well shift after election night. One study predicts that the populist parties such as UKIP will gain substantial numbers of seats while the more climate-friendly Green group, the centre-left and the centre-right groups are likely to lose their ability to form an absolute majority. The authors of that study warn that ‘the political game is extremely open at this stage, and this should prompt all the players concerned to engage in a vigorous defence and promotion of their alternative visions and proposals for the EU’.

Secondly, climate politics is big in the EU. If the UK really is too small to go it alone, the EU – the largest economy in the world and currently responsible for 11% of global emissions – has been seen by many as the place to do climate policy. The European Union is the only global power to have consistently taken a lead on climate change in global negotiations. Unbeknown to many, the largest package of EU legislation is the 2020 climate and energy package which set the 20/20/20 targets: 20% CO2 cuts in emissions and a target of 20% renewable energy by 2020. The 2011 Energy Efficiency plan and directive added further measures to these targets.

Thirdly, the European Parliament has been particularly active when it comes to EU climate politics. The Commission (the EU’s ‘executive’) has just shown its hand for the next phase, proposing a target of 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 (in relation to 1990 levels) and 27% renewable energy share in energy supply. That may sound ambitious but has been roundly condemned by the directly elected parliamentarians. They just voted for more ambitious and binding targets for renewables, emissions and energy efficiency: 30% energy from renewables while also demanding 40% energy efficiency savings by 2030 (compared to 1990). The European Parliament’s vote is not in itself binding but it puts pressure on the Commission and on member states to strengthen climate policy further.

Just last week the Parliament also voted to lower the required average carbon dioxide emissions (grams per kilometre: g/km) from new cars sold in the EU from 130 to 95 g/km. This was voted through with help from a broad coalition of centre-left to centre-right MEPs, but was opposed by Greens and nationalists. UKIP voted against because the party is sceptical of climate change and opposed to regulation, while the Greens pointed out that it represented a step backwards from an earlier, tougher proposal, which had been watered down by the German car industry (via the German government).

So climate supporters should be focusing minds and voting intentions on climate change-convinced parties, while climate sceptics and deniers should be urging voters to vote for sceptical parties.

What options do voters actually have?

In the UK, a vote for the Conservative Party or Ulster Unionists in May means a vote for the broadly anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists group. Their position is that EU climate policies amount to ‘a loss of competitiveness, loss of investment, loss of industry and further loss of jobs in Europe‘ and want competitiveness to be given priority and future climate targets to be conditional on a global agreement being reached. This group also includes the Czech Republic’s Civic Democratic Party whose co-founder and former president Vaclav Klaus is a leading climate critic who regularly likens environmentalism to communism. (Voting Tory in the Euros is thus probably slightly more ‘sceptical’ than doing so in a general election, the likes of Owen Paterson and Peter Lilly notwithstanding).

The safest bet, however, for those convinced the climate is doing fine is probably to vote for a party affiliated with the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, which includes UKIP. This group also includes representatives of the Danish People’s Party, the Polish Solidarna Polska and Italian right-wingers Liga Nord, none of which are known for known for their commitment to climate change mitigation. Polish MEP Jacek Kurski in 2012 called for the Climate and Energy Package to be suspended.

At the other end of the scale, the European Greens want to drive the EU ‘away from oil and coal imports and dangerous nuclear energy, and are aiming for independent energy supply through 100% renewable resources by 2050, high energy efficiency, and an ambitious reduction of CO2 emissions’. They tend to stand for the hard-line negotiating position in favour of more ambitious targets and for a more unilateralist line in international negotiations. In terms of options they are against coal and nuclear as well as fracking for gas, and they want to combine job creation with vigorous energy efficiency campaigns and support for renewables. European Greens make up the fourth largest grouping with 46 members from 12 countries. The UK Green Party currently has two MEPs and narrowly missed out on a third in the Eastern Region in 2009.

In between those poles is the Socialists and Democrats Group (which includes the UK Labour Party), one of the groups who backed the Climate and Energy Package. S&D generally has an activist climate change profile. It advocates working for ‘a green recovery, promoting employment in environmental industries, new energies and energy efficiency’ through regulation (e.g. lowering car emissions), an improved cap-and-trade system as well as more renewables and efficiency. Similarly the Liberal and Democratic group (ALDE), of which the UK Liberal Democrats are members, has a high climate-protection profile, and promotes the idea of an EU-wide (or global) carbon tax.

The European People’s Party (EPP) group is currently the largest European Parliamentary faction but has no UK members since the Tories left it in 2009. UK voters therefore cannot currently vote for it. But the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the current Commissioner for Climate Change Connie Hedegaard both belong to conservative parties affiliated with the EPP. The EPP commits itself to sustainable development and a ‘modernised’ energy sector that can provide more energy independence, jobs and innovation while combating climate change. They also consider nuclear as an option. 

So there are plenty of options – as there should be in a democratic vote.

Unfortunately the UK debate about ‘Europe’ seems to be about in-out, rather than other important questions of substance – including climate action versus business as usual. 

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData