- Trends in Energy
- You Win Some, ULEZ Some
You Win Some, ULEZ Some
This Week's Trend In Brief:
Surprise showings by conservatives in London by-elections this summer have been viewed as a referendum on London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to increase congestion taxes and restrictions on London commuters, providing a preview of how voters on both sides of the Atlantic may respond to increasingly ambitious climate policies whose costs and impact on everyday citizens are too often downplayed or denied.
The election sparked a general pullback on the U.K.’s climate ambitions by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who declared, “I’m on their (the British People’s) side in supporting them to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them,” even as the opposition Labor Party doubled down on climate policies.
The by-elections and their political aftermath shed light on the challenge facing elected officials on both sides of the Atlantic as the U.S., U.K., and European Union head into major election seasons in 2024.
Even as voters’ awareness of the climate challenge grows, their willingness to bear the costs demanded of them do not, and elected officials who have advanced aggressive policies while attempting to downplay or deny these costs may face difficult election prospects next year.
Public affairs professionals – whether their organizations support greener policies or fear the (un)intended consequences – must prepare now to educate candidates, the press, and the public about the good and bad climate goals entail for the electorate before the debate is overtaken by populists and progressives with their own agenda.
In July 2023, Conservatives in Britain won a seat formerly held by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, fending off a predicted Labour win in a by-election that “was widely perceived as a referendum on London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).” ULEZ is a flagship policy from London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan that levies a £12.50 (about $16) daily charge on vehicles that drive on the city’s roads with the intent of improving air quality, which includes most cars and vans built before 2006. New Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell even declared the election a “referendum” on the controversial ULEZ program, arguing the new charges would cost British families in the zone up to $4,500 pound (about $5,500) each year.
In response to the by-election, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak began to backtrack on some climate goals, “saying the country must fight climate change without penalizing workers and consumers.” Sunak altered some net-zero policies after the election and recently released plans “aimed at creating smoother journeys, safer driving and easier parking” for motorists, in stark contrast to the ULEZ. Indeed, Sunak’s approach to climate since the election has been to provide “more pragmatic, proportionate and realistic” strategies to reach climate goals, “framing the reversals as a longer-term and overdue change to approaching climate policies.” Sunak even declared he would delay or abandon environmental policies if they lead to direct costs on consumers, and he has already adjusted federal vehicle emissions requirements and approved new drilling licenses in the North Sea.
Despite voter’s ire at ULEZ and concern over broader climate ambitions, the UK’s opposition Labour Party is doubling down on climate, arguing “the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis can only be done in tandem.” Labour’s leader and likely next prime minister candidate, Keir Starmer, is sticking with Labour’s commitment to remove fossil fuel power from Britain’s electricity grid by 2030, five years quicker than the Conservative government’s target. Some in the press have accused Labor of “trying to have it both ways on the climate” by “signalling they can be ambitious on climate but cautious on the economy,” but Starmer believes climate is the most important issue on the ballot in 2024.
The debate playing out in the U.K. is likely to be replicated in election campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic next year, as the US and the European Union join the UK in holding major elections in 2024. Europe's right-of-center parties, for example, are expected to make big gains in the European Union’s parliament, partly in response to ambitious climate policy “that has been a central issue for all political forces so far.” The European Union has already faced push back from numerous member countries, who argue the EU’s renewable energy targets are unreasonable. Americans will face similar debate at the ballot box in 2024. The Biden Administration intends on campaigning on its ambitious climate agenda despite opposition from voters concerned with rising gas prices and restrictions on their choices of appliances and vehicles.
Public affairs professionals – whether their organizations support greener policies or fear the (un)intended consequences – need to prepare for the forthcoming debate and work to stop it from falling victim to the “culture war” debate between populists and progressives as election campaigns heat up. As voters’ awareness of the climate challenge grows, their willingness to bear the costs demanded of them do not, and elected officials who have advanced aggressive policies while attempting to downplay or deny these costs may face difficult election prospects next year. As California ISO COO Mark Rothleder recently argued while discussing the costs of climate action, people “didn’t sign up for a clean, affordable, less reliable grid… They signed up for a clean, reliable and affordable grid.” Climate activists have already begun preparing for next year’s election, and it’s important for industry public affairs professionals to ensure voters have the real facts about climate policies, their impacts, costs, and opportunities before the policy debate is overwhelmed by the politics of the twin tides.
Trends in Energy is your weekly look at key trends affecting the energy industry, brought to you by the competitive intelligence experts at Delve. As the political and regulatory landscape continues to shift, reach out to learn how our insights can help you navigate these challenges.