Who would have thought that gas boilers would become such an explosive political issue?
In Paris, London and Berlin, they now represent the type of high-risk arbitrations that European governments are facing, just months before important electoral deadlines.
On Sunday evening, Emmanuel Macron excluded the possibility of banning them, despite their association with pollution, following a heated discussion during the summer.
The French president cannot ignore the fact that in Germany, their gradual ban on households has triggered a major government crisis. In the United Kingdom, the issue fell victim to a sudden political U-turn, as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak decided to delay a series of climate measures due to an expected electoral defeat.
However, it is this Monday that the French Head of State is expected to finally unveil the plan aimed at enabling France to progress more quickly towards carbon neutrality, which was promised with great fanfare for 2050 in the European Green Deal.
Emmanuel Macron’s entourage has been racking their brains for days on the format of the presentation and the specific items that will be highlighted.
For the French president, the equation is no less difficult to solve than for Rishi Sunak or Olaf Scholz: he must act quickly and strongly in hopes of achieving emissions reduction goals, while also avoiding measures that would further diminish the purchasing power of taxpayers already severely impacted by inflation… The risk is on everyone’s minds: triggering a new uprising like the Yellow Vests movement, as a result of the announced increase in carbon tax in late 2018.
The replacement of highly polluting boilers, whether they run on oil or gas, is a perfect example of a measure with great potential for achieving climate goals, but also carries a high political risk.
Officially, the reason why the French government is moving cautiously on this issue is for industrial reasons: it would be “to avoid doing for heat pumps, primarily produced in Poland and China today, what we did for electric cars,” according to the Minister of Energy Transition, Christophe Béchu. In other words, Paris wants to give French manufacturers time to become competitive.
However, the explanation is primarily political. In May, Elisabeth Borne mentioned the possibility of banning the installation of new boilers starting in 2026, which quickly spread as a rumor of an imminent ban. This was despite immediate backlash from consumer associations and a discreet backtracking by the government – which ultimately settled for launching a consultation on the topic in June.
“I have thought about this question a lot, we will not forbid it. We cannot leave our fellow citizens, especially in rural areas, without a solution,” explained Emmanuel Macron on Sunday on TF1 and France 2.
A big winner in Germany
In Germany, the political cost of gradually banning the most polluting boilers has been shown to be very heavy. The government passed the measure at the beginning of the month with difficulty, after months of infighting within the ruling coalition. The far-right party Alternative for Germany, which fanned the flames without restraint – one of its leaders Alice Weidel described the measure as “annihilation of German prosperity” – has simultaneously risen to over 20% in the polls.
“In Germany, there was an attempt to proceed with a ban without providing the necessary budgetary resources. As a result, people rebelled. It is not possible to present people with an unsolvable equation,” explained economist Jean Pisani-Ferry to POLITICO this summer, as he was commissioned by the government to evaluate the cost of the energy transition.
In addition to the boilers, Paris is also closely monitoring the political situation in the Netherlands. Former Vice-President of the European Commission for Climate Action, Frans Timmermans, has just arrived from Brussels to lead a list of social-democratic and ecological alliances in hopes of winning the early elections on November 22nd.
However, Timmermans is facing the rise of the Farmers-Citizens Movement (the BoerBurgerBeweging), which presents itself as the defender of farmers against, among other things, European regulations. In March, the “BBB” already won the provincial elections by campaigning against the nitrogen plan, implemented by Europe, despite intensive agriculture being responsible for nearly half of the country’s emissions of this pollutant. This plan includes, among other things, the halving of the national livestock, causing anger among Dutch farmers.
This will also feed the doubts of decision-makers in Paris: “This will be a rehearsal before the European elections,” commented Christophe Béchu this week with a hint of apprehension, regarding the upcoming Dutch elections. While he is certainly pleased with the government’s announcements – “No country in the world has done what will be presented here” – the same minister also worries about the supposed “sharp rise in indicators of climate skepticism, or climate relativism” in France.
Are we up to the challenges?
According to Emmanuel Macron, who made a lasting impression by declaring at his campaign rally in Marseille, “the politics I will pursue in the next five years will be ecological or not at all,” it is finally time to address an issue on which he has struggled to demonstrate his true ambition.
If the outgoing president was primarily trying to appeal to the approximately 22% of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters, he had already announced his intention to reconcile “two anxieties”: those who fear “a more sustainable planet” and those who fear “too rapid a change”.
The challenge, as Christophe Béchu also pointed out, is to gain credibility in the few weeks leading up to COP28, which will take place in Dubai in November.
In London, the sudden change in stance on climate by Rishi Sunak has already garnered him strong criticism from the Labour opposition and European officials. Critics denounce a decision that would greatly damage the UK’s credibility in the fight against climate change, only two years after the COP26 conference in Glasgow where London had boldly declared its intention to be a leader in this issue.
Emmanuel Macron, who constantly reminds us of the historic milestone of the Paris agreements on the global and European stage, is also closely watched by both his partners and rivals.