Ideas on Europe

Is there an anti-green backlash?

© Sam Forson sur Pexels Is there an anti-green backlash?
© Sam Forson sur Pexels

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

Jannik Jansen, you are Policy Fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin, and together with your colleagues, you express serious doubts about the famous anti-green backlash among European voters. Tell us where this narrative comes from in the first place.

When Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took office in 2019, the European Parliament had just been elected amidst a wave of climate strikes, led by young people demanding more ambitious climate policies to secure their future. Five years and an ambitious European Green Deal later, climate policy debates are again central in the run-up to the European elections in June. However, the tone has shifted: instead of young people, it is farmers taking to the streets with their tractors to voice their frustration about environmental regulations.

Far-right parties have been quick in capitalizing on these protests, portraying climate policies as unfair and overly burdensome for citizens and farmers. Their narrative of a widespread backlash against green policies has gained traction. As a result, liberal and centre-right politicians have become increasingly hesitant to endorse Green Deal initiatives, calling for a pause or even a rollback of climate legislation.

But does this political U-turn truly reflect a general shift in public sentiment?

Good question. To explore this, we conducted a survey with 15,000 citizens in Germany, France, and Poland at the end of last year. Our findings challenge the notion of general climate fatigue.

Citizens in all three countries remain concerned about the negative effects of climate change on themselves and their families. For instance, 4 out of 5 respondents in France indicated that they were already negatively impacted by climate change or expect to be so in the next five to ten years.

These concerns translate into continued support for more ambitious climate action, with a majority of citizens in each country expressing this sentiment. Notably, this support spans beyond green and left-leaning party supporters, among liberal and conservative voters as well.

How much climate scepticism did you find in your survey?

There is a sizeable minority skeptical of more ambitious climate policies: roughly 30% of the population in Germany and Poland, slightly less in France. But despite the politicized debate, this group has not grown significantly compared to previous studies. Moreover, this group of “climate sceptics” is largely dominated by supporters of far-right parties, which increasingly treat climate debates as an ideological battleground.

Therefore, democratic parties should refrain from rushing into a “race to the bottom” in scaling back their climate ambitions. The tale of a broad anti-green backlash appears largely overstated; however, mainstream voters do have clear preferences for how the EU’s climate-policy mix should be shaped going forward.

What are these mainstream preferences?

Green industrial policies and public investments into infrastructure, such as electricity grids and railways, are amongst the most popular policies. Similarly, targeted regulatory measures such as green standards for the industry and the power sector enjoy broad support. In contrast, broad bans and CO2 pricing mechanisms are relatively unpopular, especially in areas such as transport and heating, where households would be directly affected by higher prices. This is particularly relevant, as the European Emissions Trading System is set to be extended to these areas in 2027.

Our findings underscore that to garner voter support for these necessary but unpopular policies, it will be essential to combine them with a more substantial redistribution of carbon-price revenues, providing some sort of compensation to all citizens while privileging those who are hit hardest. In general, it should be a key priority to reassure citizens that the costs and benefits of the green transition are equitably distributed.

What are your recommendations to the political parties?

It is clear that ideology and partisanship have a significant impact on people’s climate policy positions. If parties compete over the best recipes on how to fight climate change, explain trade-offs, and try to convince voters of necessary but unpopular steps, voters will take notice. However, if parties outbid each other over who scales back climate ambitions the most, they would not only misread where most voters stand on the issue but could inadvertently create the very climate fatigue they aim to address.

Thank you very much, Jannik Jansen, Policy Fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin, for sharing your research on the perception of green policies by European voters.

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.

The complete policy brief of the Jacques Delors Centre at Hertie School of Governance