Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

Back to the Stone Age: Europe’s Mainstream Right and Climate Change

Mitya Pearson



| 7 mins read

In Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis, Bale and Kaltwasser highlight how, in contrast to social democratic and populist radical-right parties, Europe’s centre-right parties receive relatively little attention. The same is true in relation to climate policy. There is a wealth of scholarship demonstrating the often-hostile attitude of parties on the radical right to policies tackling climate change, but comparatively little research into moderate right-wing parties’ approaches to the issue.

This is unfortunate because Europe’s centre-right parties are key players in national politics, and there is evidence of some common approaches to climate policy among them, as we can see in reference to four examples from recent years (this discussion assesses the period up to Spring 2023).

Germany: responding to defeat

Friedrich Merz, elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2022, had previously criticised his predecessor Angela Merkel for laying the party open to competition from the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), partly because of her environmentalism. He had also complained in the past about regulatory burdens on German business, including the impact of environmental protections. These were reasons to suspect that Merz’s CDU would shift rightwards.

However, the strategic challenge for the party which Merz emphasised was attracting female and younger voters, whilst some post-election commentary focussed on the CDU/CSU’s most likely route back into government being via a coalition with the Greens. There was also some internal mobilisation to push for climate policy. The Klima Union was established in 2021 as a campaign group linked to the CDU/CSU and EPICO, a think tank developing market-oriented strategies to tackle climate change, was also formed in 2021, reflecting Merz’s own position, which has been to tackle climate change, while also supporting business.

Sweden: governing with the radical right

At the 2022 election the right bloc entered government, though the Moderates recorded their second worst score since 1976. Ulf Kristersson became prime minister at the head of a minority coalition. To achieve a narrow majority in parliament, they relied on the votes of the Sweden Democrats, who were the second most popular party. The Sweden Democrats were excluded from government, but they secured chairs of four parliamentary standing committees and, under the ‘Tidö agreement’, had ‘full and equal influence’ in six priority policy areas.

The new Swedish government repeatedly emphasised its commitment to tackling climate change in its first few months in office. In Kristersson’s October 2022 speech to parliament setting out the government’s programme, he argued that ‘Sweden must emerge from the energy crisis to achieve our climate goals and restore reasonable electricity prices for the Swedish people.’ Such rhetoric contrasted with evidence of backsliding on climate change as the new government sought to respond to the energy crisis. There was criticism of decisions to disband the Ministry of Environment, cut taxes on fuel, and reduce funding for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. However, the right bloc’s programme for government did not involve a full-scale dismantling of Sweden’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2045.

Spain: fragmentation on the right

During a turbulent period between 2015 and 2019 there was significant fragmentation and competition on the right between the moderate Citizens Party and the populist -right party, Vox. Vox politicians have opposed climate change policies and downplayed its threat. Once Vox made electoral breakthroughs, much of the People’s Party’s attention focussed on responding to this electoral challenge. However, there have been incentives for the People’s Party not to copy Vox’s stance on climate. Indeed, the economic opportunities for Spain associated with the energy transition have become clear, whilst a 2021 poll showed that 81 per cent of Spaniards were concerned about climate change.

During their period in opposition, there have been some signs of divergent views on climate change within the People’s Party, which broadly maps onto the division between its moderates and right wing. Díaz Ayuso is a high-profile example of someone in the People’s Party with a more hostile stance, while Juan Manuel Moreno Bonilla has been a high-profile advocate for action on climate change. Leader, Alberto Núñez Feijo, has given limited attention to climate change and does not appear to have strong views on the topic. As a result, climate policy has been pragmatic and business-focused, whilst acknowledging the threat of climate change.

Austria: governing with the Greens

Following a coalition with the radical-right Freedom Party that did not consider climate policy a priority, in 2019 the People’s Party (ÖVP) went into coalition government with the Greens. The agreed policy programme had a substantial focus on climate change but appeared more like a division of specific agendas than an attempt to agree a common purpose. Despite an inauspicious political context in which leader Sebastian Kurz was forced to step down due to a corruption scandal, several climate policy initiatives were implemented, including a new carbon tax, and financial support that both helped businesses to deal with the energy crisis and promoted industrial decarbonisation. Climate policy was clearly primarily the Greens’ responsibility and was a source of tension between the two coalition partners, but nonetheless, a government led by the ÖVP was responsible for delivering a series of schemes to help tackle climate change and members have at times been keen to champion climate policy prioritising the role of business in transition to net-zero.


Looking across these four cases, there are some common tendencies in the approach of these parties to climate change. Indeed, centre-right parties have generally adopted less ambitious policy stances on climate change than their competitors to their left, whilst the economy and the interests of business loom large in their climate policy calculations. They also often exhibit an apprehension about climate policies which involve the radical transformation of individuals’ lives, preferring instead to place an emphasis on technology. In this context, an emerging philosophical and practical challenge for mainstream right parties in Europe is how to develop a more comprehensive set of policies to deliver climate goals which are in keeping with their ideological traditions.

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    Mitya Pearson

    Mitya is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, conducting a project examining UK government decision-making on climate change since 2008. Mitya is Assistant Professor in the Politics of Climate Change.

    Articles by Mitya Pearson