Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object
On far too many occasions in the last three years of writing, I’ve been forecasting that a great crisis would erupt soon when the irresistible force of Net-Zero policies met the immovable object of democratic resistance from the voters. In a way it was an easy prediction. Advocates of Net-Zero from Greta Thunberg to Leonardo DiCaprio, from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to Boris Johnson, have not shrunk from admitting that the policies they urge would mean a higher cost of living and a lower quality of life including such lifestyle changes as fewer holidays, less travel, and menus that replace steaks with insects.
Not a very appealing election program. I once wrote the Tory manifesto for Margaret Thatcher’s third election campaign which (I’m proud to say) resulted in a Conservative majority of over 100 seats. But we would not have won a single constituency in Middle England if I’d ghosted the slogan: Vote Tory, Pay More Taxes, Eat Insects, Vacation at Home, and History will Thank You.
So I was betting on a sure thing when I predicted a historic smash up between fanatical Net-Zero governments and their electorates. But the awkward thing about predictions is that it’s not enough to get them right if you get the date of their occurrence wrong. Which is to say, my confident pronouncements have been slow to materialize. Luckily the dam has finally burst in recent weeks:
- On March 14 Dutch voters delivered a very unpleasant surprise to the world's climate establishments. They gave a landslide victory to an insurgent farmers party that had been holding mass demonstrations throughout the Netherlands to protest government plans to purchase farm land compulsorily and sell it to companies that, as prime minister Mark Rutte promised, would farm it more efficiently.
It’s a little hard to share Mr. Rutte's doubts about the efficiency of Dutch farmers because they've been successfully exporting agricultural products to the rest of the world from farms operating below sea level for hundreds of years. They have greatly reduced the use of water and chemical fertilizers while becoming the second largest agricultural exporter in the world. Not perhaps coincidentally, their achievements are a standing refutation of the world’s climate establishment’s argument that climate policy must rely overwhelmingly on mitigation via cuts in carbon emissions rather than adaptation to climate change (though it's how people have dealt with changing climates throughout history.)
“Efficiency” on this question, however, is a technical term. It means sacrificing the Dutch farmers because, while producing large farm surpluses, they use fertilizers that increase nitrogen emissions higher than those agreed by an E.U. committee of technocrats and imposed by the courts which were themselves responding to lawsuits from Green activists . . . until the voters intervened.
Since the election Frans Timmermans, E.U. Commission vice-president and informal “climate chief,” has invited the leader of the Farmers-Citizens Party (the BBB), the formidable Caroline van der Plas, to Brussels where he will “explain” the policy to her. She in turn invited him to Holland where she seems intent on explaining it back to him. The intrusion of democracy is already playing havoc with the stately progress of Brussels policy-making, and it's likely to get worse. The BBB has just announced that it intends to fight in next year’s European elections when its policies will cover much more than farm closures—in particular, transforming the E.U. from federal superstate to common market which presumably would not have its own Net-Zero policies.
In Germany ten days later, democracy struck again. On March 26th Berlin voters rejected a referendum proposal that, if passed, would have legally committed the city to climate neutrality by 2030. It failed:
According to election officials, a slim majority of about 442,000 voters voted in favor (50.9 percent). Some 423,000 voters voted against (48.7 percent). However, this met only one requirement for a successful referendum. The second requirement, an approval quorum of at least 25 percent of all eligible voters, was not met. That would have been around 608,000 yes votes. 35.8 percent of the approximately 2.4 million eligible voters took part in the referendum.
Berlin’s mayor, Franziska Giffey, had welcomed the result as a recognition of reality. She declared that the programs proposed in the referendum “could not have been implemented—not even if they were cast into law.”
The sincerity of that statement is confirmed by the fact that if the referendum had passed, the E.U. would have given Berlin financial assistance as part of its program to help cities to reach climate neutrality by 2030. Now, when the mayor and citizens of a European city reject cash from Brussels because they believe that the programs accompanying it will end up costing them more than they receive, that’s a small political earthquake. Moreover, the referendum was lost by a substantial margin—not so small an earthquake at that.
- Then, two days later, the E.U. voted not to prohibit the sale of petrol-and-diesel driven cars from 2030 as planned but instead to postpone the ban to 2035 after which, in addition, it will allow such vehicles to be sold if they are powered by e-fuels (as well as by electricity). That rethinking had been kicking around the corridors of E.U. power for some time, so it can’t be directly attributed to the Dutch and Berlin election results. But they won’t have discouraged it either.
What then does this new, softer regulation signify? E-fuels are described by one of the companies developing them as “carbon dioxide waste and renewable power from wind, solar or hydroelectric sources [used] to create a hydrogen-based alternative to fossil-based fuels,” and they sound marvelous. Their only drawback is that they don’t really exist at present and they may never exist at an affordable or competitive price. Not all innovations pan out, and some that pan out technically fail in the market.
So what is likely to happen in 2035 if e-fuels remain more expensive than fossil fuels, electric cars are too costly for many consumers, the infrastructure needed for electric vehicles is proving inadequate, and some E.U. member-states still have a large percentage of their voting car-owners still driving around petrol-fueled cars?
Brussels says the ban will be enforced anyway. But will it? Some European economies would be badly damaged by a blanket ban—on top of the damage they've sustained from the Ukraine war. Poland is strongly opposed to any ban on internal combustion engines. Objections from Germany and Italy (and their car industries) just compelled Brussels to make this partial retreat. By 2035 E. U. governments will be feeling much more heat from the voters on Net-Zero issues than today. And though the technocrats gave a determined "No” to earlier requests that the 2030 prohibition be postponed or scrapped, well, that just happened.
The same technocrats have naturally noticed that another important news item about climate policy appeared this week that seems to contradict the broad theme of this article. It was the latest from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and it called for an acceleration of all Net-Zero measures in order prevent a rise in world temperatures by 1.5 degrees—or, what is more likely, to reverse a now inevitable rise by 2.0 or more degrees—if we are to avoid global "catastrophe." Or in the words of Secretary General Guterres: "Our world needs climate action on all front: everything, everywhere, all at once."
Strong words, even if they were lifted from the title of the movie that just won the Best Picture Oscar. But this was clearly a message of desperation. It told people that the U.N.'s degree targets were unattainable—they would be reached no matter what and would only be reversed by massive draconian cuts in energy use and living standards against which people are already rebelling “everywhere, all at once.”
That message is simply not believable. It opens the door, however, to a message of hope. We need a new approach based on adaptation, innovation, and replacing technocracy with democratic consultation. For starters, we could ask the Dutch farmers what they would do.