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Europe’s flagship Green Deal faces growing backlash

In 2021, the EU unveiled a groundbreaking set of proposed laws and rules to make Europe the first continent with net-zero carbon emissions. Fast forward two years and backlash to the European Green Deal is bursting out.

(CN) — The European Union, the world's green deal pioneer, has a new big green problem: It's not climate denial, but “climate delay.”

Across Europe, backlash to Brussels' groundbreaking European Green Deal, unveiled in 2021 by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as Europe's “man-on-the-moon” moment, is being felt as governments, including at the level of EU institutions, and large segments of society resist the slew of new costly and radical environmental laws and rules.

The justifications for the backlash are varied.

Some argue saving livelihoods – especially at a time of war and crisis – trumps saving the planet. Others profess fantastic new technologies – hydrogen, solar, carbon capture – are around the corner, so don't worry, no need to dump fossil fuels overnight.

And some say “Whoa!” to the canvassing of Europe's beautiful landscapes with wind turbines and solar panels because they too are destroying farm life and nature.

Climate activists call what's happening in Europe an example of new tactics and impulses to thwart or slow down efforts to stop burning fossil fuels: In the jargon of green politics, it's called “climate delay.”

“The old war was 'outright denial'; the new war is 'deception, distraction and delay', including deflection of threats and division of opponents,” wrote Michael E. Mann, a leading climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his 2021 book, “The New Climate War.”

Europe's anti-green mood is no surprise and can be seen as a reaction to a series of global shocks.

“It's understandable in a time of crisis – the energy crisis, the cost-of-living crisis – that it becomes more challenging to implement ambitious climate policy,” said Alina Averchenkova, a climate policy expert at the London School of Economics.

The pushback is knocking the EU off balance.

In Germany, the coalition government – a combo of Socialists, Greens and pro-business Free Democrats – is teetering in the face of public anger against its expensive green policies.

Polls show support for all three parties has fallen off, but it's been particularly bad for the Greens, whose successes in the September 2021 federal elections now seem like a distant memory.

Many Germans are furious over a proposal to make it mandatory for homeowners to rip out old gas-heating systems and replace them with pricey electric heat pumps. In poorer eastern Germany, heat pumps can cost as much as half or more of the value of many homes.

Backpedaling, the government is now redrafting the law, but toxic infighting is testing the stability of Europe's most important economic and political power and its commitment to lead on green policies.

Even before the heat pump fiasco erupted, many Germans were seething at EU rules to ban the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. Germany is, after all, home to Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Opel and Volkswagen, among the most prized automobiles in the world. Finance Minister Christian Lindner, the race-car-driving leader of the Free Democrats, tried to veto the legislation from passing in Germany, but ultimately backed down.

In Berlin, the clash over climate action has even become physical.

For weeks, climate activists calling themselves the Last Generation have been gluing their hands to roadways to block traffic and demand urgent and immediate action from the government.

And it's gotten ugly: Angry motorists have dragged and pushed protesters off the streets and police have spent hours removing protesters' glued hands. In at least one incident, police needed a jackhammer to get a glued demonstrator off a roadway.

Fed up and alarmed, last month German prosecutors and police raided homes and offices of Last Generation members and accused them of being a criminal organization.

Police officers use hammers and chisels to remove a climate activist who glued himself to a road in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, May 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

In France, President Emmanuel Macron, mindful of the violent anti-fuel tax protests of the “yellow vests,” has showed little interest in climate policies and last month called for the relaxation of environmental regulations in a big push to propel France – and the rest of Europe – into what he's calling a new age of industrial output.


In the Netherlands, months of road blocks and demonstrations by farmers frustrated with onerous EU green policies was capped by the stunning victory in provincial elections in March of a new conservative party representing farmers, the Farmer-Citizen Movement.

In Spain, backlash has taken a different shape: left-wingers and greens are calling into question large-scale renewable energy projects.

Last year, two of the country's box office successes were movies about how country life is being eaten up by renewable energy projects.

The film “Alcarràs” tells the touching story of a family of peach growers in Catalonia facing eviction because their orchard is being turned into a solar panel park. The other film, “As Bestas,” is a psychological drama about a French couple hounded by local farmers angry at how their refusal to sell their beloved land in Galicia to a wind turbine company has derailed other locals from profiting from land sales.

The films echo the mood of protests in Spain that have rung out with the chant: “Yes to renewables, but not like this!”

Meanwhile, Poland, the EU's up-and-coming industrial powerhouse, has slowed plans to move away from coal, one of the worst greenhouse gas pollutants. Warsaw says it's got to because it has refused – both out of principle and strategic necessity, it argues – to never again buy Russian gas and coal.

It's not just Poland, though, that's turned back to fossil fuels.

In the wake of war in Ukraine, the EU hurriedly built new ship terminals for liquefied natural gas imports. And oodles of gas is being shipped in from North America, Africa and the Middle East.

In all, the EU could see 30 new LNG ports built in the coming years – and that's a big bad sign for green activists, as Greenpeace warned in a report in April.

Meanwhile, a number of countries – among them France, Italy, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia – are uniting around opposition to the EU's plans to further curb automobile emissions by 2025. They're also against the ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. These governments say it's unwise – and even potentially disastrous – to shift Europe away from gas-fueled cars so quickly.

Then last month a big shock to the green agenda crashed down.

In Munich, the European People's Party – the EPP is the biggest bloc in the European Parliament and consists of conservatives, including the head of the EU, Von der Leyen – adopted resolutions to oppose pending EU rules to ban the use of most pesticides in agriculture and others meant to turn large areas of farmland into nature preserves.

“This message that EPP is sending that we cannot produce food and restore nature is against the science, is against what the citizens want, is against what the civil society organizations have been advocating,” said Sergiy Moroz, a policy manager at the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels advocacy group.

“It really matters what they do and think. They are the largest group” in parliament, he said.

He accused the European People's Party of abandoning the Green Deal in order to score political points and get the backing of farmers and the rural vote ahead of next year's European Parliament elections.

“They're really instrumentalizing what's going on to maintain business as usual,” Moroz said.

He said farmers' concerns are legitimate, but in the end their long-term needs would be better served by banning pesticides and restoring peat bogs, forests and other damaged landscapes.

“You cannot produce food on a dead and dry planet,” he said. “If EPP is really saying they care about farmers, then for the long-term perspective we need to solve the climate crisis; we need to solve the nature crisis; and we can only do that through protecting and restoring nature.”


Obviously, the Greens in Europe and their supporters are crying foul.

Philippe Lamberts, a co-leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, alleges Europe's national leaders are turning their backs on the Green Deal.

“I would say the green thinking is simply not around the table and we have to face it,” he said on the podcast "EU Scream."

“You look at the European Council today, the 27 leaders – with the exception of Emmanuel Macron between the two rounds of the presidential elections, so for a couple of weeks – you have no champion of the green transition. No one believes this is the big deal. No one, not a single one," Lamberts said.

He added: “Indeed, the backlash is there: I mean, you can hear people saying: 'We've seen enough of all this now, we need to work on growth and purchasing power and all the rest of it' ... To me, this would be a major, major, major political failure for Europe's future, including its economic future; indeed, if we don't lead here, someone else will.”

The EU has long championed combating climate change – and for good reasons.

European industry from the 1800s to today is to blame for much of the world's global rise in temperatures; and Europe is paying the consequences too because it's particularly vulnerable to global warming, scientists say.

Since at least the 1990s, Europeans have been at the forefront of discussions about the need to reduce carbon emissions. In 2015 in Paris, those discussions culminated with the Paris Agreement, a global accord under which every nation is supposed to develop plans to cut back on carbon emissions.

The European Green Deal, then, represented the EU's far-reaching commitment to make Europe the first continent to become net zero by 2050, a state in which the EU does not add to the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The Green Deal is underpinned by a “climate law” that makes cutting emissions by 55% by 2030 a legal requirement.

To do this, the Green Deal called for raising fuel standards for vehicles, ships and airplanes, banning pesticides, reducing plastics, introducing new financial mechanisms to penalize businesses and building owners for their emissions, charging a new tax on foreign goods coming from places not doing their part to reduce carbon emissions and much more.

The Green Deal was touted by Brussels politicians as proof of deep support for climate policies among Europeans. But that's only partially true.

For example, a YouGov survey in April showed clear majorities of respondents in seven of Europe's biggest countries were worried or very worried about climate change.

But the same survey revealed another truth: Europeans still aren't willing to make lifestyle changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as reducing meat consumption and ditching the car.

Averchenkova, the climate policy expert, said the backlash to the Green Deal highlights how important it is to ensure policies are adopted with public participation and to “get society on board.”

A series of citizens' assemblies are taking place across the bloc to achieve just that, she noted.

“To avoid backlash – that we're seeing – you need to actually get the public engaged,” she said, “not just publish the document on the website and think everyone's going to read it and understand it and be on board.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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