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Is there a green policy backlash?

Leaders in Germany and the U.K. think so.

- September 21, 2023

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a surprise announcement on Sept. 20 that the United Kingdom will delay a range of climate policies, most notably the transition to green heating systems and electric vehicles. Sunak stated: “At least for now, it should be you, the consumer that makes that choice – not the government forcing you to do it.” His home secretary, Suella Braverman, doubled down on this message: “We’re not going to save the country by bankrupting the British people.”

The likely reason behind Sunak’s announcement is that he fears a backlash from voters concerned about the pocketbook implications of green policies. News outlets widely interpreted recent Conservative defeats in local elections in these terms. And the U.K. is not alone. There is anecdotal evidence from other European countries and recent political science research that points in the same direction.

Last spring, the German government introduced a new heating law that essentially bans new gas boilers in favor of greener systems. The law’s introduction led to immediate public outcries over the cost of replacing older home heating systems with newer, cleaner technologies like heat pumps powered by renewable energy sources. Eventually, the government had to water down the law for it to pass parliament. 

This debate over the economic consequences of a green policy has reshuffled Germany’s political landscape. Support for the Greens, who are part of the ruling coalition, dropped sharply in public opinion polls. By contrast, a poll of voter intentions showed the far right AfD rising from fourth place to second. 

The AfD has long railed against the economic cost of green policies. During the 2021 election campaign they attacked green policies for threatening essential aspects of the German way of life: “Diesel, Schnitzel, and Billigflug [cheap flights].” They were thus in prime position to exploit public unease over the cost of replacement heating systems.

Here’s what the political science research says

Several recent studies suggest that the anecdotal evidence from Germany is not an isolated case and that there may be a causal link between green policies and far right support. Especially in Europe, far right parties have long been the sole opposition voice to climate policies. New research suggests that people who bear the cost of climate policies increasingly flock to the far right. Yet there are also limits to climate opposition in countries where large majorities continue to support strong government action on climate. Moreover, there is evidence that climate policies that adequately compensate for people’s economic losses can avoid this type of backlash.

The first study, published in the American Political Science Review, examines a green policy in the Italian city of Milan that restricted a range of highly polluting vehicle models from accessing the large residential core of the city. Italo Colantone, Livio Di Lonardo, Yotam Margalit, and Marco Percoco show that the owners of those vehicles suffered significant economic losses and became 13.5% more likely to vote for the far right Lega party at the 2017 European Parliament elections. However, a subset of banned vehicle owners received compensation from the local government – and they were not more likely to switch to supporting Lega. Moreover, the authors point out the difficulty estimating the net effects of the policy change. It may well be that people who did not own banned vehicles became more supportive of the government for implementing a policy that reduced air pollution and advanced climate goals.

In a working paper, I examine the political consequences of a Dutch policy change that increased taxes on household natural gas consumption and redistributed the revenues as renewable energy subsidies. This is a very regressive policy: Low-income households spend larger proportions of their incomes on utilities and are less likely to benefit from solar subsidies. The study compares renters whose rents do and do not include utilities. If you pay a separate utility bill, you see the increased taxes on your bill and you may be inclined to change your behavior to save on gas, by taking shorter showers or letting your house stay cooler during winter months. 

The study compares the same individuals before and after the policy change and finds that renters who pay separate utility bills became 6-7 percentage points more likely to vote for the radical right. These renters also became less sympathetic towards the Green party and more concerned about price increases. Like in the previous study, this does not mean that the far right had a net gain from the green policy. It could be, for instance, that people who benefited from the subsidies became disenchanted with the far right for making their opposition to green policies more salient.

What might limit the backlash to green policies?

There’s also direct evidence that adequate compensation can prevent political backlash from green transition policies. In “How to Get Coal Country to Vote for Climate Policy” (conditionally accepted at the American Political Science Review) Diane Bolet, Fergus Green, and Mikel Gonzalez-Eguino show that Spain’s Socialist party actually gained votes in coal mining municipalities after implementing a policy to phase out coal mining. The Socialists negotiated a “Just Transition Agreement” with the unions that supported affected workers and invested in affected municipalities. The authors’ research suggests that union support was critical for the Socialist party’s electoral boost.

These studies offer evidence that green energy transition policies that impose concentrated and substantial economic losses on groups of individuals may well create a political backlash that benefits the far right. But policies that offer adequate compensation can avoid these backlashes. To some degree, political scientists already understood this. For example, political scientists who were heavily involved in writing the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, like Leah Stokes, have long argued that climate policies that impose uncompensated costs are likely to fail politically. The evidence from real-world political examples should amplify that message.

Image courtesy of © Marcus Millo via Canva.com