On a recent episode of the Siemens Energy Podcast, Justin Worland, Senior Correspondent at TIME, shared some of his perspectives on the climate beat — one he places at the intersection of policy, public opinion, and the private sector. He mentioned some recent climate-related headlines which offer insights into the state of the climate discussion. Taking his advice, we went a bit deeper into a couple of the stories he mentioned (and one he did not) to see what he sees every day: how governments, businesses, and individuals continue to react to climate change.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy and emitter, recently had an election to determine who would rule the country after a 16-year run by Angela Merkel, sometimes called the “climate chancellor,” and her party. The elections led to a so-called “traffic light” coalition, due to the fact that the governing parties, the Greens, the Free Democrats (FDP), and the Social Democrats (SPD), are represented by green, yellow, and red, respectively.
While these three parties do not necessarily agree on policy, they seem to broadly agree with the German electorate, which is very climate-focused. As a result, the coalition government has created a new “super ministry” for climate, and has proposed a list of fairly ambitious targets across multiple sectors:
End the use of coal by 2030
- Natural gas will be needed for a transitional period
- This transition has been slow-walked by many German legislators over the years because large reserves of coal have provided Germany with energy independence and hence a freer hand in some political decisions
Renewables should have an 80% share of total electricity by 2030
- To do this, renewable expansion has to be defined as “public interest” and given priority over all other areas of environmental protection until net zero is reached
- 2% of German land should be dedicated to onshore wind power
- Rooftop solar will be mandatory for new commercial buildings
Net-zero target of 2045
- A more aggressive target for 2030 has been set, with cutbacks of 65% of emissions by that year in relation to 1990
Because the country is convinced of the need to develop governmental policies around climate change, it elected a government mostly on the climate issue. What comes next is how the private sector will respond to the carrots and sticks in the coming legislation.
Citizens of the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan reacted earlier in 2021 to a rise in fuel prices. There were protests in the city of Almaty and the province of Mangystau after price caps were lifted on the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG).
LPG is a mixture of hydrocarbon gases, usually propane, butane, and propylene. It’s widely used as a vehicle fuel in parts of Kazakhstan because it is cheaper than gasoline — at least when price caps are in place. The price caps, which were briefly lifted, keep the price at 50% of the rate of the market price. And when the price caps were lifted, the prices instantly shot up.
The response of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was rapid. The day after the protests he accepted the resignation of his cabinet and declared a two-week state of emergency in Almaty and Mangystau. Most importantly, price caps were reintroduced for 180 days as a “temporary price regulation.”
While the protests were originally about fuel prices, very often protests find a way to bring other issues into the fray. In this case, calls rang out to further exclude Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s former leader, from government roles. Nazarbayev still wields enormous power behind the scenes, and what was originally only a limited protest about fuel prices broadened into questions of broad government reform.
While the Kazakh protests were originally about fuel prices, very often protests find a way to bring other issues into the fray.
Yellow Vests in France
If you want to go back to the original example of a fuel protest becoming something much bigger, you don’t have to look farther than France’s Yellow Vests protests, which began in 2018 over a rise in fuel prices. The rise was said to disproportionally affect those living in rural areas and, almost overnight, hundreds of thousands of people were out in the streets protesting, wearing a yellow roadside vest that every French driver must keep in their car.
Just as the Kazakh government reversed course almost immediately in response to popular protest, so did the French government. The fuel price increase was scrapped. And just as the original Kazakh fuel price protest quickly morphed into a larger discussion about other issues, the Yellow Vest protest became a political movement of sorts, even leading to some of its adherents winning local, regional, and even EU parliamentary elections.
The Yellow Vest movement is still around in France but is a shadow of the strength it had at its height, in part due to the fact that its original cause drew people from a very wide spectrum, who then failed to agree on policies and means to achieve those policies.
Different Priorities, Different Reactions
In these three scenarios, we can see a sample of different countries reacting differently to climate issues. In Germany, where the populace considers it a priority, an election was fought with climate being a leading issue. As such, there are now policies being debated that may be implemented in the near future.
In Kazakhstan and France, climate isn’t yet a front-and-center issue. As a result, aspects of it can be flashpoints for short-term change, but the short-term change achieved, climate can fall into the background noise of other, more pressing, political issues.
That’s in part why it’s difficult to get a worldwide consensus on climate change. The experiences and priorities of different peoples and nations vary so widely that getting everyone to agree on even one thing is a real challenge. That doesn’t mean an attempt shouldn’t be made, and the ongoing COPs are one of those attempts. The most recent iteration, COP26, occurred last year in Glasgow, with the UK as president of the conference.
Conferences like COP are a snapshot of how any problem might start to be solved, by bringing together stakeholders to discuss the issues at hand. What follows next, however, is more important: how do public policy and the private sector react to new policies? That ongoing combination and reaction will be in the headlines for many years to come.
That’s in part why it’s difficult to get a worldwide consensus on climate change. The experiences and priorities of different peoples and nations vary so widely that getting everyone to agree on even one thing is a real challenge.