‘Greenlash’: Why it’s getting harder to pass environmental reforms in the EU

Protesting farmers talk at a blockade outside a distribution centre for supermarket chain Aldi in the town of Drachten, northern Netherlands, on 4 July 2022.
Protesting farmers talk at a blockade outside a distribution centre for supermarket chain Aldi in the town of Drachten, northern Netherlands, on 4 July 2022. Copyright AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File
By Euronews Green with Reuters
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What is ‘greenlash’? Here's how right-wing parties are using the cost of living crisis to roll back green policies.

A growing 'greenlash' against Europe's environmental agenda has so far failed to derail its decarbonisation plans. But looming elections could put future climate and nature measures at risk.


The European Union has polished its role as a leader on climate change, enshrining carbon reduction targets in law and proposing policies to slash emissions this decade.

And so far the impact of the green backlash is limited, say policymakers and analysts, because most of Europe's main CO2-cutting policies are fixed into law.

But as policymakers seek to translate net-zero targets into measures that extend beyond power generation to areas such as buildings and transport, they face increasing resistance as citizens struggle with a cost of living crisis.

Angst over a law to phase out oil and gas heating brought Germany's ruling coalition close to breaking point, while in the Netherlands, anger at plans to cut nitrogen pollution led to a shock poll win for a new farmers' protest party.

Politicians are tapping into fears about the cost of green policies

Analysts say politicians are increasingly tapping into worries about the expense of green policies ahead of regional, national and EU elections over the next year-and-a-half.

"It's definitely different circumstances than in 2019 when we started with this maximum support and the political willingness to act from... across the parties," European Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told news agency Reuters.

Politicians must take into account polls showing a large majority of citizens are worried about climate change and strong business interests behind the green transition.

"We have this stable majority which supports the green deal," he said, referring to the level of support in the European Parliament for the EU's overall green agenda.

"But then we come to more difficult files [EU legal proposals] where I think, inevitably, they are very much affected by the political debate," Sinkevicius added.

It's getting harder to pass green laws in the EU

As a result, officials say it is getting harder to pass green laws, with some EU governments resisting new emissions limits for cars and seeking to weaken pollution controls for livestock farms. A proposal to improve the energy efficiency of buildings faces pushback from countries worried by the cost.

Poland's government, which faces October elections, is even suing Brussels over climate policies.


"Does the EU want to make authoritarian decisions about what kind of vehicles Poles will drive?" its Minister of Climate and Environment Anna Moskwa asked last month.

Nature conservation measures face even greater opposition than decarbonisation ones due to lobbying by the powerful agriculture sector and a lack of strong business incentives for change, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italian international relations think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali.

Although a recent campaign by the centre-right European People's Party, the biggest group in the European Parliament, to kill off a proposed law to restore damaged environments failed, the proposal looks set to be diluted.

"The elections to the European Parliament next year will be very decisive if one looks further ahead, because the centre right group is turning more negative to green policies," the European Council on Foreign Relations' Mats Engström said.

Europe risks falling behind on green technology

Another concern is the impact on Europe's diplomatic standing and investor confidence, coming as the United States offers multi-billion dollar green subsidies and tax breaks.


"It's slightly ironic that Europe is having these problems when the United States has finally got its act together," said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Ward said Europe risked falling behind India and China in establishing green industries and technologies.

Last year, India boosted solar capacity by 28 per cent, outpacing the capacity growth of European heavyweights.

"If Europe is wavering, it will allow other countries to take advantage in the international markets in electric vehicles and other technologies," Ward said.

Britain has already quickly gone from being a leader on the world stage to looking quite weak on green policies, he said.


Britain's climate advisers said in June the country is not doing enough to meet its 2050 net zero target, while a government-commissioned review found businesses complained of weaknesses in Britain's investment environment.

Progress in UK onshore and offshore wind has been hampered by rule changes, for example, prompting some developers to warn they will struggle to invest without better incentives.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who faces an election within 18 months, last month warned of climate policies that "unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs".

How can the EU drum up support for green policies?

Europe's green policies are still more credible than US ones, given see-sawing between electoral cycles in the United States, some analysts said.

But EU politicians are going to need to address more concerns of citizens and businesses if they want to maintain support as they legislate on sectors that hit close to home.

Dutch Minister for Climate and Energy Policy Rob Jetten told Reuters in June that the main challenge for the next few years was for politicians to show that the green transition was also a just one, with support available for those in need.

Rows over green policies have propelled right-wing populist parties to second place in both Dutch and German polls.

The German heating law debacle underscored the importance of ensuring green laws enabled transition without overwhelming anyone, Nina Scheer, climate protection spokesperson for the ruling Social Democrats in parliament, said.

"Otherwise citizens might start to feel that climate policy is always financially overwhelming and bad, and that sentiment is then exploited by populists."

Crafting a strong green industrial policy is key, said Simone Tagliapietra, Senior Fellow at think-tank Bruegel.

"If we don't create green jobs in Europe, if we don't make sure to have these industrial and economic opportunities, we will be in trouble," Tagliapietra said.

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