At times it felt like the story of 2023 was an endless tale of climate backlash and green fatigue. The battle over London’s ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ) became part of the country’s culture war, a coalition of EU politicians sought to derail the phase-out of fossil cars, and the heat pump ‘debacle’ almost brought down the German government. Meanwhile, right-wing parties appeared to be on an unstoppable march towards power in major EU nations. The real story, though, is one of remarkable resilience.
The year started with the umpteenth episode in the EU car wars. The German government’s minor coalition partner, the libertarian FDP, kicked off 2023 by launching an attack on the EU’s 2022 agreement to phase out combustion cars.
For a moment it seemed as if the support for 100% electric vehicles in 2035 would unravel. It didn’t. All the FDP gained was a promise by the Commission that it would bring forward legislation to allow engine cars after 2035 running on 100% e-fuels, made 100% from renewables. There’s no way such vehicles, if they ever get built, could compete with EVs.
The UK’s own electric car U-turn was another non-event. Despite all the drama, Prime Minister Sunak introduced the world’s most ambitious ZEV mandate. By 2030 80% of new cars sold in the UK will need to be electric, by 2035 the remaining 20% need to follow. That’s a huge win for the planet.
The London anti-ULEZ campaign was where things got nasty. Opponents of London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, successfully painted the scheme as an attack on “motorists”. There was tons of online abuse. Some of our staff in London received death threats. And yet, Sadiq Khan held firm, and as I write this article, ULEZ has been introduced, with little or no inconvenience to people or business. Air quality will improve, businesses will adapt and the far right will look for another wedge issue to launch a culture war on.
The backlash against heat pumps in Germany was more successful. The Greens’ ambitious plan to phase out fossil boilers by 2024 aroused so much opposition that it had to be watered down.
That’s not to deny the political cost of the heat pump saga. The Scholz coalition is performing poorly in polls but as the budget crisis shows, there’s more to the government’s disfunction than heating. Either way, the shift to heat pumps is well underway. Just a few weeks ago, the UK – yes, the net zero sceptics again – quietly proposed a clean heat mechanism that requires heat appliance manufacturers to increase the number of heat pumps sold and installed year after year.
I could go on: EU lawmakers supported the world’s most ambitious truck CO2 standards, voted on a nature restoration law, agreed building renovation standards, and completely overhauled the EU’s economic and industrial policies to support the bloc’s decarbonisation goals. The anti-subsidy probe into Chinese EVs and the new green battery fund – we support both – are good examples of this.
So the real story of 2023 is not backlash and backsliding. It is resilience. This is all the more remarkable since Europe went through multiple, major crises in recent years, starting with COVID, then the Ukraine war, and finally the energy and cost-of-living crisis.
Part of this resilience is down to the political situation being a lot less dire than some media headlines suggest. For example, the progressive Spanish government secured another term. In Poland, a pro-EU coalition resoundingly won. Yes, Wilders won in Holland but will he govern? Scholz and Macron’s ratings are low but they only face elections in 2025 and 2027. So with the exception of Italy, four out of five big EU countries are ruled by governments that would continue the green deal.
What will help us going forward is that industry needs and wants investment certainty. That’s what the EU’s climate policies provide. That COP28 confirmed the world’s desire to move forward on climate action and transitioning away from fossil fuels helps too.
Our collective challenge now is to build the new economy sketched out in EU laws.
You could call this next phase the Green Deal 2.0, or the implementation phase. Or you can follow the Belgian prime minister in calling it an “industrial deal”. We would agree with Deng Xiaoping who famously said: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” The green deal is alive and kicking.