Energy transitions and winning the battle for low-carbon energy systems

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Low-carbon energy is winning the race in some sectors on its own merits – in solar and wind power, electric cars and increasingly batteries and heat pumps. There is plenty of work to be done in areas such as heavy industry, shipping and air travel. But here too, good solutions are starting to emerge.

A referendum on the UK’s net-zero policy? Big gains for climate-sceptic right-wing parties in the European Parliamentary elections in June? A repeal by Donald Trump of President Biden’s signature environmental legislation, adding 4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030? Just as it seemed the world was setting sail to a better climate future, are the political winds blowing against it?

The concerns come from different points of the compass. One is a perceived slowdown in some core parts of the energy transition. Offshore wind power has suffered from rising costs, project delays and the need to renegotiate several contracts signed under unviable conditions. Electric vehicle darling Tesla underwent a bad first quarter, with sales seriously below expectations and dropping for the first time since the pandemic, to below end-2022 levels. And Chinese rival BYD did even worse.

Enforced changes

Another is resistance from some parts of the public to environmental measures. The Labour Party in the UK lost a very winnable by-election last July over the London mayor’s plans to extend the capital’s ultra-low emissions zone for vehicles to the suburbs. People are suspicious of enforced changes to lifestyle or heavy additional costs, while squeezed by inflation and stagnant living standards.

A third is that a number of mostly right-wing parties in the Western world have seized on climate as another political culture-war issue. This may be a tepid watering-down of climate pledges – the governing Conservative Party in the UK has delayed a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel car sales from 2030 to 2035. In February, Britain’s Labour Party unwisely backed off, ditching its promise to spend £28 billion of additional capital each year on decarbonisation.

Or it may be more radical. The further right, anti-European Reform Party now tries to outflank the Conservatives on an openly climate-denying platform, promising a referendum on the country’s net-zero carbon commitment.

Heat pumps in the spotlight

In Germany, the anti-immigrant and pro-Russian Alternative for Germany (AfD) is pro-coal, anti-wind power, also climate-denying and claiming that rising carbon dioxide levels are good for plant life. It has campaigned against heat pumps, which run on electricity rather than burning gas, focussing on exaggerated estimates of their cost for most householders. The party is polling at around 20 percent and made big gains in state elections in October.

Heat Pump

Climate has been a dividing issue in the US since at least the 1990s, when the Senate opposed ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and the 2000 election, when environmentalist Al Gore lost narrowly to George W. Bush, who withdrew from Kyoto.

Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2019. Should he return to the White House in 2025, it’s likely to ignite a bonfire of environmental legislation, including possibly dismantling the venerable Environmental Protection Agency, set up by another Republican, Richard Nixon. There would probably be a major effort to undo much of the Inflation Reduction Act, which may put as much as $1.2 trillion towards the green economy, although generous subsidies to some businesses and states would likely survive.

And there would be little chance of building on the success of the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015 or last year’s COP28 in Dubai in progressing global action.

Support for climate action

But there are good reasons to think this picture is too gloomy. First, most voters remain strongly in favour of climate action: 93 percent of EU citizens see climate change as a serious problem. Younger people in general are more pro-environmental. Right-wing climate denier parties may be able to latch on to certain issues, or win locally, but their electoral appeal on this issue is limited.

Second, low-carbon energy is winning the race in some sectors on its own merits – in solar and wind power, electric cars and increasingly batteries and heat pumps. There is plenty of work to be done in areas such as heavy industry, shipping and air travel. But here too, good solutions are starting to emerge. Governments should make inefficient and carbon-intensive consumer goods as unfashionable as smoking.

Battleground Asia

Third, the battle against climate change won’t be won or lost in Europe or even the US – it will be in Asia, which concentrates the bulk of global population, economy, greenhouse gas emissions and, increasingly, manufacturing of low-carbon energy systems. Governments in China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere are pursuing a mix of sometimes contradictory policies that support clean energy deployment at the same time as coal for domestic supply security.

But their politics don’t map on to the Western left-right divide. Large majorities –71 percent in India, 72 percent in Vietnam, 80 percent in Brazil – say they are “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, well above levels in the US, UK or Germany.

So what can pro-environmental parties of the centre and left do? It would be foolish to back off their climate policies. That would dampen enthusiasm from their natural supporters, while seeming to concede that the anti-environmental voices are right.

German nuclear exit

But, environmentally-minded parties have not helped themselves with foolish and ideological policies. Germany’s nuclear exit is perhaps the most egregious, driving up customers’ bills, making energy-intensive industries struggle, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.


Almost without exception, environmental organisations and “Green” parties are against nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, despite the overwhelming mass of studies showing they are crucial to any hopes of meeting net-zero carbon goals. Other essential projects for meeting climate goals, including electricity transmission, mines for crucial energy transition minerals such as copper and lithium, and even offshore wind farms, face reflexive opposition from Bananas – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

Demonising domestic oil and gas production even while fossil fuels continue to be required is similarly counterproductive – hitting energy security, employment and tax revenues. Demonising them, instead of providing a realistic path to energy transition including carbon capture and geothermal energy, hits climate-friendly parties in key districts.

Making green technologies attractive

Bans – of petrol and diesel cars, or new gas boilers – may be environmentally sensible but politically toxic. People don’t like being told what to do. It was not necessary to ban horse-drawn carriages in the early 1900s on the grounds of their manure production. Gas fires replaced coal in the 1960s with the help of clean-air legislation but also because they were cleaner inside the home, easier to turn on and off and did not need daily cleaning.

Similarly, it would be better to use taxes and the steadily improving performance and economic attractiveness of green technologies to make carbon-intensive systems obsolete and unfashionable.

Most of all, climate-friendly political forces need to shun the hair-shirt policies of guilt and denial. They must build a positive story – that of technological innovation, hope, a cleaner, fairer, safer, more prosperous world. And they should pick their battles – but have the courage of their convictions.


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