21 Dec 2023, 13:00
Julian Wettengel

Preview 2024: Elections to shape future of European Green Deal

Photo shows people taking photo in front of VOTE instalment at EU elections in 2019, in Brussels. Photo: European Union 2019, Source: EP.
Voters head to the polls from 6 to 9 June 2024 to elect a new European Parliament. Photo: European Union 2019, Source: EP.

Voters in the EU will head to the polls in June 2024 to elect the next European Parliament, kicking off a months-long process to pick the bloc’s new leadership that will shape climate policy until the end of the decade. It will face the difficult task of designing the follow-up to the Green Deal – Europe’s strategy to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Policymakers say the EU must focus on implementation, but also ensure its place in the world as a climate and technology leader, even as increasing worries of losing out in the transition causes pushback against ambitious climate policy. The political landscape is set to change as far-right parties are projected to make significant gains in many countries. However, the example of Poland points in a different direction, where a new pro-European government promised to put forth an ambitious energy transition programme soon.

2024 is set to be a decisive year for the future of European climate and energy policy, as voters across the continent will head to the polls in a series of national, regional and transnational elections. The outcome of the European Parliament vote in June will determine the EU’s next leaders, who must set the right policy priorities to ensure the bloc’s place in a world transitioning towards climate neutrality.

The elections are “certainly of central importance” for Europe’s future climate policy, Leonore Gewessler, Austria’s minister of climate action, environment, energy, mobility, innovation and technology, told Clean Energy Wire. The legislative period that is coming to an end has been shaped by the European Green Deal, she said. Under the umbrella of this sustainable growth strategy, the EU has overhauled almost its entire climate and energy legislation over the past years to put the bloc on a path to reach its climate targets by 2030 and beyond.

We need a bold and visionary climate policy right now.

Leonore Gewessler (Austria’s minister of climate action, environment, energy, mobility, innovation and technology)

This path must be pursued, Gewessler said. “We need a bold and visionary climate policy right now,” which includes “making our energy system more climate-friendly and independent, making our economy and industry a pioneer in the competition for the greenest production methods through consistent transformation, and giving people the prospect of a good life on a healthy planet,” she said.

In the world’s largest transnational elections – with more than 400 million people eligible to vote – citizens of the 27-member union will choose a new European Parliament from 6 to 9 June. Once lawmakers begin their work, the crucial process of choosing the new executive leadership in the European Commission and Council will take several months to complete. All institutions play their part in shaping the next five years of EU climate and energy policy: voters’ decisions give general direction, the designated next Commission presents policy priorities, which then have to be greenlighted by parliament, which in turn also agrees legislation in the following years. Alongside all this, member state governments in the Council are powerful co-legislators. They propose the next Commission president and set the political direction for the EU’s 2024-2029 agenda.

These will be decisive years not only for global climate action – scientists say limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43 percent by 2030 – but also for reaching the bloc’s 2030 energy and climate targets. The next EU executive will have to ensure that the union moves from words to action to implement ambitious policy and asserts itself as the global climate leader it aims to be.

Global uncertainties and national campaigns

The backdrop against which a new EU leadership and its climate policy programme would emerge in 2024 could hardly be more challenging.

"We are living in a time of multiple crises and global uncertainties,” Austria’s Gewessler said. Russia’s war against Ukraine made Europe realise how vulnerable its energy supply is, war and terror in the Middle East cause uncertainty, and extremists are using this situation with their propaganda, she said. “These are difficult circumstances for successful policy, also on climate.”

It remains to be seen how these crises evolve and what else could happen next year, but polls already show that this backdrop causes people to worry less about climate change than they did ahead of the previous EU election. Due to multiple extreme weather events and droughts, and pushed by the youth climate strikers of Fridays for Future, Green parties in the 2019 elections made significant gains in many EU countries in what some commentators called “the first climate election.” The outcome pushed then new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to present an ambitious programme on climate to secure the approval of the European Parliament. This tailwind looks to be missing this time around, as worries over rising prices and international security dominate.

Graph shows EU Eurobarometer results to question "What are 2 most important issues facing the EU" 2010-2023. Source: European Union/CLEW.
Data source: European Union

In addition, the EU elections are mainly national votes for the European Parliament. Citizens elect representatives from national parties, who join European alliances once in parliament. That means 27 very different election campaigns firmly rooted in national contexts will decide the make-up of the next European Parliament.

“The campaigns for the EU elections will be shaped by national topics and dynamics, such as the territorial and rule of law debate in Spain, or the budgetary crisis in Germany, with little space for climate change compared to 2019,” commented Pepe Escrig, researcher at think tank E3G.

Climate ambition at stake as policymakers must turn to those at risk of losing out

Transforming the entire economy and society towards a greenhouse gas-neutral EU by 2050 increasingly affects people’s day-to-day lives as more people fear that they lose out due to the changes – as the controversial debate about climate-friendly heating in Germany has shown. This is a situation that far-right and populist parties across the continent are seizing on already, and are likely to use in the upcoming election campaigns – the first EU elections in which artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT or image creators could have a massive influence.

“It’s becoming clear that the success of the green revolution will depend on whether policymakers and climate campaigners start taking into consideration those who will bear its greatest costs,” journalist Karl Mathiesen wrote in Politico.

Aggregated polls from EU member states published by Europe Elects indicate gains for conservative, right-wing parties, which have been sceptical of the progressive climate policy of the Green Deal. This has also pushed centre-right parties to oppose crucial legislation – such as the Nature Restoration Law – and could present a hurdle for the follow-up to the Green Deal.

“This is exactly what will be decided in June 2024 – will the EU move in the direction of progress or will the blockaders put the brakes on protecting our climate with their campaigns of lies,” Austria’s Gewessler asked. “Nothing less is at stake.”

Green Deal 2.0 to secure Europe’s competitiveness in global transition?

Still, in a recent EU survey, citizens named action against climate change as one of the top four priorities they want the European Parliament to tackle, only surpassed by the fight against poverty and public health, tied with support to the economy.

“We need to really make clear why the Green Deal is also an industrial policy and a social policy,” Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said. He has been a key proponent of more ambitious climate policy for years. The Green group politician argued that the climate agenda must be broadened and must tackle all aspects and sectors, including industry.

“Green Deal 2.0 is investment in the sectors that now really need to speed up the transition,” Eickhout told Clean Energy Wire. “Our industry needs massive investments to transition away from gases to electricity, which will be a huge challenge for us. We should offer an investment programme.” With countries like the U.S. and its Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), or China “throwing a lot of money” at their industry, the EU must make sure it remains competitive as the transition progresses. “We must give companies clarity, investments, predictability, which the Green Deal should deliver.”

Eickhout said that if conservative German politician Ursula von der Leyen gets another term as Commission president, she is sure to build on her green policies. However, “if it is not von der Leyen leading the next Commission, then we really do not know what will happen with regard to the follow-up to the Green Deal,” he cautioned.

Debate on EU 2040 climate target in early 2024

As the EU enters the last stretch before the elections in June, the number of crucial legislative dossiers which the incoming Belgian EU Council presidency must push over the finish line has grown small. Euractiv reports that Parliament is set to vote on rules to reign in false green claims by companies, or the European Hydrogen Bank. From April until the formation of the next Commission, there is unlikely to be any major legislative work on climate and energy.

However, one major EU climate policy debate is yet to come. The Commission must present a proposal for a 2040 greenhouse gas reduction target, as required by EU climate law. The bloc has a target for 2030 and aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, but has yet to decide on an interim goal. Climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has said he will push for 90 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2040.

MEP Eickhout said the abstract number for 2040 might not be a big topic for the public. However, “the combination of difficulties in reaching our 2030 target, and then on top of that the need to go beyond in 2040, will spark a debate about the difficulties in the different sectors, which in turn will spark discussions in the EU election campaign,” he told Clean Energy Wire. Still, the final decision will be up to the next Commission, Parliament and the member states months later.

Italy’s G7 presidency, new Polish ambitions and a super-election-year across the continent

Climate and energy will take the limelight in 2024 not only at EU level. Italy, for instance, is set to hold the G7 presidency, with a summit shortly after the EU elections in June. Rome has yet to present its priorities, but climate will become a cross-cutting issue, the country’s recently appointed special envoy for climate Francesco Corvaro said.

“We want to tackle all aspects of climate change policy, be it in health, the energy sector or food,” Corvaro told Clean Energy Wire in an interview. He emphasised that cooperation with Africa – also on energy – would be a major part of the G7 presidency.

While Italy aims to reclaim its seat at the table of international climate talks, the new Polish government aims to move the country firmly back onto a pro-European path and present a progressive energy transition plan. “The progress and final outcome on that will be one of the key stories to watch in Poland, as the plan will shape much of future legislation and set a path for a crucial decade of decarbonisation in the power sector and beyond,” journalist Patryk Strzałkowski commented.

Germany’s ruling three-party coalition has been struggling to deal with a 60-billion-euro hole in its special fund for climate and transformation programmes after a landmark court ruling on the country’s debt limit. The dispute about budget cuts, priorities and reshuffling of funds has strained the already difficult alliance’s cohesion even further, and parliament is set to adopt the 2024 federal budget only around the end of January. On top of all this, elections in three eastern German states in September could see the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) come out as the strongest party. The party has rejected the European Green Deal and other climate policies, as well as the science on human-made climate change, going against overwhelming empirical evidence.

Elsewhere across the continent, elections could bring new governments into power, such as in the UK, which will likely hold a vote in 2024, and where prime minister Rishi Sunak was criticised for watering down key climate measures this year. In campaigns during Croatia’s “super election year,” political analysts expect heated debates as politicians will focus on issues such as how to deal with the rising cost of living also due to high energy prices. Austria’s chancellor Karl Nehammer and his centre-green coalition will campaign to remain in power after the September election, Portugal will hold snap elections in March, and Belgians will head to the polls at the same time they vote for the European Parliament. 

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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