European politicians are recognizing the folly of Net Zero

Europe’s voters want climate policies—until they discover how much they cost. No one wants to be the party that’s promising to take voters’ jobs and raise their energy bills

By Joseph C. Sternberg, Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2024

You know you’ve stumbled through the looking glass when European politicians start sounding saner on climate policy than the Americans do. Well here we are, Alice: Europeans are admitting the folly of net zero quicker than their American peers.

The latest example—perhaps “victim” is more apt—is Humza Yousaf, who resigned this week as Scotland’s first minister. That region within the U.K. enjoys substantial devolved powers over its own affairs, including on climate policy. An administration led by Mr. Yousaf’s left-leaning Scottish National Party had hoped to rush ahead of the national government in London in slashing carbon emissions.

Until, that is, someone noticed the costs. A recent report from the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee noted Scotland had fallen far behind on its climate goals. The government aimed to reduce by 20% the aggregate distance driven by Scottish motorists, compared with 2019 levels, but had no plan to accomplish the reduction in personal mobility by the 2030 deadline.

To get back on track with the government’s goal of a transition to home electric heat pumps, Scotland would have to replace natural-gas fire boilers at a rate of more than 80,000 households a year by the end of the decade. That’s a big ask considering that in 2023 it managed 6,000 boiler replacements. The government resisted imposing an aviation tax to discourage excess flying. And so on.

Mr. Yousaf did the only thing he could under the circumstances: He all but abandoned net zero. His administration announced it is ditching firm annual emission-reduction targets in favor of fuzzier “carbon budgets.” The Green Party, with which Mr. Yousaf’s SNP governed in a coalition, balked. After a series of political machinations that were one part “Macbeth” and two parts “Comedy of Errors,” Mr. Yousaf’s administration collapsed and he was forced to resign.

Further Net Zero progress would mean big impact on household budgets

Observe two salient details. First, the specific list of targets the country was missing. Scotland had reached the point where further net zero progress would have made obvious and material demands of household budgets. That isn’t counting the additional costs of renewable power hidden in utility bills. Apparently in Scotland as elsewhere, voters insist that Something Must Be Done to control global temperatures until the moment some hapless soul points out that Households Will Have to Pay for It.

Which leads to the other detail. Mr. Yousaf gets a bad press in Britain for his political incompetence, but give him credit for this at least: He saw trouble brewing and didn’t wait for a mass protest movement to erupt before trying to change course.

Other European politicians can’t say the same. In the Netherlands, Germany and the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, among other places, farmers have blocked streets with tractors in opposition to climate-related and other environmental diktats whose costs they weren’t willing to bear. This after the French yellow vests in 2018 forced President Emmanuel Macron to abandon an increase in the diesel tax.

Even politicians are capable of learning. British politicians, still traumatized by the 2016 Brexit referendum, may be learning a bit faster than others. Mr. Yousaf’s move in Scotland is part of a race for the net-zero exits in which all major U.K. parties are participating ahead of an election expected later this year.

Britain racing for net-zero exits

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has toned down electric-vehicle mandates and ditched plans to require English households to install heat pumps. Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, likely the next prime minister, has hedged his party’s commitment to phase out oil and gas drilling in the North Sea—so that he can promise unionized Scottish oil workers that they’ll keep their jobs—and abandoned an earlier pledge to spend £28 billion the British government doesn’t have on the green transition every year.

Mr. Yousaf’s reversal particularly makes political sense because his SNP is locked in a fight for its life with Labour. No one wants to be the party that’s promising to take voters’ jobs and raise their energy bills. The SNP will hope that the short-term pain caused by the defection of the Greens from a governing coalition spares Mr. Yousaf’s party the existential crisis of a mass defection of its voters.

U.S. continuing Net Zero policies

The puzzlement is that the U.S. is headed in the opposite direction. President Biden is pressing ahead with aggressive net-zero policies such as an electric-vehicle mandate and pouring trillions of dollars of borrowed government and hard-earned household money into climate boondoggles.

Perhaps Mr. Biden believes Donald Trump is sufficiently frightening that centrist voters will overlook the president’s climate flights of fancy. Perhaps he’s right. But it’s a big risk to assume voters won’t care about net zero’s costs. Notable for the many Europhiles on the American left, it’s also a risk fewer and fewer European politicians are willing to take themselves.

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