Our research can help newly elected European policymakers to realise the climate transition

The EU 1.5° Lifestyles logo is pictured next to the EU flag
Climate policies in Europe needs to be more integrated with welfare policies.

Despite climate change being high on the list of European voters' concerns, economic and social issues dominated the recent elections, posing a challenge to the EU's ambitious climate agenda in the upcoming legislative period. The EU 1.5° Lifestyles project highlights the need to integrate social policies with climate strategies to ensure a fair and inclusive transition.

In the recent European elections, climate was an important issue for voters, even though some observers have noted that the election outcome might make it more difficult to move forward with an ambitious European climate agenda. In fact, climate ranked amongst the prioritised issues all over the European Union. In Sweden, climate was the issue ranked most important by as many as 58 % of the voters (Eurobarometer, 2024). But the overall top-ranking question for the European voters were the social and economic issues relating to their living standards, including higher prices, social inequalities and social exclusion (Euronews, 2024; Eurobarometer, 2024).

In the legislative period ending this year, the EU has achieved what is often considered the world’s most far-reaching climate framework, the Green Deal and the Fit for 55 package. Although research, including the findings of the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project, shows that climate ambitions need to be stepped up considerably to reach the target of the Paris Agreement, the Green Deal and Fit for 55 package have arguably consolidated EU’s longstanding role as a global climate leader in terms of acting as a fore-runner (Bäckstrand, 2022; Jänicke & Wurzel, 2020).

With the fundamental European climate framework in place, other climate policy issues will be on the EU’s agenda in the upcoming legislative period 2024-2029. Amongst other topics, the EU will have to continue setting certain details of the Fit for 55 package and setting the all-important emissions reduction target for 2040. But the dominating question on the EU’s climate agenda over the next five years will be the implementation of the Fit for 55 package.

Implementing the EU climate package in the Member States will mean integrating European-level frameworks and directives into national legislation and policies. It will also mean balancing the joint impacts that these new policies, in combination with existing national policies, will have on citizens. Implementation on a national level will also make policymakers' accountability towards voters more visible.

The implementation of these new climate policies will have distributional effects and will affect economies, citizens, households, and businesses in different ways and to varying extents. The fact that citizens and businesses will be impacted is natural since the main objective of climate policy is to have an impact in the form of phasing out non-sustainable practices and promoting sustainable alternatives.

But while the EU climate agenda is ambitious in a global comparison, it lacks strategies for handling the consequences and impacts on citizens’ lives and policies for supporting the climate transition on the individual and household levels. The research results in the EU 1,5° Lifestyles project show that welfare and climate policies in Europe remain insufficiently linked in both discourse and practice.

This disconnection will not be sustainable in the long run. We have already observed backlash from both citizens and politicians. Recently, we witnessed the repercussions of these reactions, exemplified by farmers’ protests in Brussels and the popular protests against higher petrol prices, such as the Yellow Vests movement in France. In Sweden, popular discontent with high petrol prices due to the reduction quota scheme for adding biofuel to petrol and diesel played a considerable role in the outcome of the 2022 parliamentary election.

In parallel with the past years’ realisation of new climate policies, Europe’s pandemic-stricken economies have witnessed high inflation, higher prices, high unemployment, and higher housing costs, having considerable impacts on the purchasing power of households all over Europe. For some population groups, this has resulted in an increasing feeling of disconnect between political ambitions and many citizens’ capacities for change.

Recent years have also seen a political backlash for the climate agenda (i.e., Tocci, 2023). In this year’s European election campaigns, there was a clear backlash from several parties and party groups in the European Parliament. Among the myths and narratives put forward by these parties were claims that the climate transition is damaging for citizens, consumers and economies and that it lacks public support.

Several parties in the European Parliament want to tear up or at least cut back Fit for 55. One of Europe’s largest political parties, the German CDU, has run its election campaign promising to scrap the EU's upcoming ban on combustion cars.

However, we should not forget that there is also broad support for an ambitious climate transition. Both trade unions and business organisations see the benefits through positive employment effects and stronger competitiveness through green business models.

Therefore, in the new legislative period, there will be new kinds of challenges for both the EU and the Member States. Since effective climate policies tend to have distributional effects that may burden vulnerable groups such as low-income households, it will be more important to consider distributive effects and social justice in the forthcoming implementation of EU climate policies.

In fact, ensuring that the transition to a sustainable future is fair and inclusive will probably be a larger challenge than setting targets and formulating policies. When climate policies do not sufficiently consider the needs of vulnerable groups, they risk exacerbating existing political polarisation and societal division. 

Research shows that policy can be developed to both mitigate emissions and strengthen citizens’ welfare and wellbeing in ways that gain voters’ acceptance. This is one of the clear results of the EU 1,5° Lifestyles project (i.e., Brizga, et al, 2023; Richter, et al, 2023; Kreinin, et al, 2023). If there are trade-offs between climate policy and welfare of citizens, this will only emphasise the existing contrasts between fulfilling human needs and reducing environmental pressures instead of identifying mutually beneficial solutions. When policymakers fail to integrate climate and welfare policy, they also ignore that a healthy environment is vital for the long-term health of society. Put differently, well-designed welfare policies are fundamental enablers for the transformations sought by the Paris Agreement and the EU Green Deal (i.e., EU 1,5° Lifestyles, 2023).

Several welfare policies can support the transition to a 1.5° society by promoting wellbeing, resilience, and equality, limiting social tensions and addressing the challenges caused by climate change. Importantly, this needs to be complemented by strengthening political messages to make these connections clear.

In the new European legislation, when implementing Fit for 55, the newly elected European Parliament and the forthcoming cabinet of European Commissioners will have to consider distributive and justice aspects of the climate transition, and the Member States will have to better integrate welfare policies with climate policies. Finally, these policies need to be grounded in solid science-based knowledge, including the results of the EU 1,5° Lifestyles project.

Marianne Ekdahl, Lund University


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Brizga, J., Lakševics, K. & Belousa, I. (2023). 1.5° Welfare and Business Models: Summary Report. EU 1,5° Lifestyles Project.

EU 1.5° Lifestyles. (2023). Designing welfare systems for a 1,5° future. Policy brief.

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Euronews (2024). Rising prices and social inequality could decide the European elections: Exclusive poll.

Jänicke, M., & Wurzel, R. K. (2020). Leadership and lesson-drawing in the European Union’s multilevel climate governance system. In: Pioneers, Leaders and Followers in Multilevel and Polycentric Climate Governance (pp. 22-42). Routledge.

Kreinin, H., Fuchs, D., Lange, S., Philipp, J. & Schmidt, F. (2023). Stakeholder Perspectives on Structural Change. Deliverable 3.2. Executive Summary.

Richter, J. L., Lehner, M., Elfström, A., Mont, O., Henman, J. & Plepys, A. (2023). Rebound and Risks Summary Report. EU 1.5° Lifestyles Project.

Tocci, N. (2023). After two years of real progress on climate, a European ‘greenlash’ is brewing. The Guardian, 12 July.