The World of International Organizations Explained

Climate activism propelled by E.U. voters

Brussels scene during European elections (ARÊTE/CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP)

Climate concerns have rarely if ever weighed heavily in any major election — until now, with Europe’s Greens gaining influence from voters worried about the planet’s health, according to provisional results on Monday.

The left-leaning Greens gained 17 seats in European Parliament elections, making it the fourth-largest political party with 69 seats, provisional results showed. Its 2 percent gain now gives it 9 percent of the 751-seat parliament. The Greens surged to second place in Germany and third place in France.

Two traditional major parties of center-left social democrats and center-right conservatives no longer have the centrist majority, dropping from 53 percent down to 43 combined. That means their agenda depends on alliances with Greens and other centrists. But combined with Greens, they would have a 52 percent majority.

“This is a mandate for real change: for climate protection, a social Europe, more democracy and stronger rule of law,” said Franziska Maria “Ska” Keller, a German politician and leader of the Europeans’ Green movement.

The Greens’ young supporters in the European Union’s parliament shared a pro-E.U. sentiment, sharply contrasting with far-right populists and anti-immigrant nationalists who also fared well with Europe’s voters. The far right, many running as so-called “Euroskeptics” opposed to the E.U. and European integration, won about 25 percent of seats, up from 20 percent in 2014, provisional results indicated.

“This new E.U. parliament is widely pro-democracy and pro-European. Right wing parties are isolated,” said Götz Frommholz, a policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, an Open Society Foundations think tank.

The Green wave should not have come as a surprise. In the months and days leading up to the May 23 to 26 elections for parliament, tens of thousands of youth demonstrators across Europe joined in climate strikes uniting 1.8 million young people in 125 nations, according to tallies kept by the Fridays for Future movement.

The movement’s 16-year-old founder, Swedish student Greta Thunberg extolled voting-age followers on Twitter to “vote for a future!!” just before the green parties in Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden picked up substantial numbers of parliamentary seats.

Some of the adult supporters also backed the youth movement by agreeing to cast their votes based primarily on their common concerns about Earth’s rising temperatures. Many photos and exhortations from children and their parents or grandparents were posted on social media using the hashtag #givethekidsyourvote.

Splintering effect

The result of the elections was a more polarized, fragmented parliament. But the large majority of parties that won support from voters who made climate action a priority are obliged to follow through by tackling Earth’s climate emergency, said Brussels-based Climate Action Network Europe, representing 160 organizations.

“European citizens expect the E.U. to act on climate change,” Wendel Trio, director of CAN Europe, said of the outcome of voting for seats representing 512 million people in the 28-nation E.U. bloc.

“We now need a broad alliance of political parties, including liberals and conservatives, that recognize the climate emergency and the urgency to act,” he said. “This starts with ensuring that E.U. climate policies and targets are in line with the commitment of the Paris Agreement to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and protect European citizens from devastating climate impacts.”

The 2015 Paris Agreement seeks to prevent average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible. Last December, almost 200 nations adopted a rulebook for the agreement that sets out how nations must report their reductions in carbon emissions and pay for further climate action.

But the talks apparently deadlocked over monitoring and accounting rules for carbon credits to cut emissions, a longstanding point of contention. Also known as “cap-and trade,” such systems are mainly used regionally.

Their aim is to lower pollution and create market value — giving nations added incentive to use clean energy — by making industrial carbon emissions an artificially scarce commodity. Governments set the caps for carbon emissions across an industry, or an entire economy, then establish penalties for violations.

The caps are split into allowances and distributed by governments to companies. These can be bought and sold on the carbon marketplace. As a cap declines over time, industries are supposed to have a growing incentive to use energy more cleanly and efficiently.

The Greens are skeptical of nuclear power, due to safety and environmental concerns. But the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last September that the nuclear industry could deliver lots of low-carbon power for global economic development that would make a “vital contribution” to fighting climate change.

Europe’s Greens have instead favored an overhaul of the cap-and-trade program known as the E.U. Emissions Trading System, launched in 2005. After 14 years of effort, Europe’s carbon market is worth $38 billion a year. It serves as the continent’s chief strategy for cutting carbon emissions from industry.

European carbon prices peaked at almost $36 a ton in 2008, then crashed during the global financial crisis because the system created too many allowances. The market was further oversupplied by non-E.U. carbon credits. Prices reached a low of about $3.65 a ton in 2013.

The prices, as with other markets, are driven by supply and demand. The system is, at its core, a political tool to curb pollution and spur business investment in low-carbon technology. Overhauling it to work as intended would require assurances that, on the supply side, power operators receive only as many allowances as they actually need. The demand side fluctuates with the economy and what types of emissions the ETS includes.

Prices declined again in early 2016 and after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, then slowly recovered in early 2017 and continued to rally to about $28 a ton in 2018. An important factor has been anticipation of the ETS Market Stability Reserve starting in 2019 that will hold back 24 percent of surplus market allowances to 2023.

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