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5 elections worldwide that could threaten climate action

By Sara Schonhardt | 02/08/2024 06:05 AM EST

A Trump victory could imperil U.S. policies to reduce warming pollution. Other countries face similar risks.

Donald Trump smiles in front of an American flag.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event last month in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP

If 2023 was the year climate change broke records around the world, 2024 is when warming could go to the polls.

Countries that are home to almost half of the planet’s population will hold elections over the next 11 months that could influence how quickly nations address rising temperatures.

The elections are particularly important because they will empower governments that in 2025 will submit new climate targets to the United Nations, determining how quickly the world might cut planet-warming pollution.

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“Every year from this moment on matters,” said Frances Colón, senior director for international climate policy at the Center for American Progress. “The climate isn’t going to wait for us to resolve our political differences, at the domestic level in the U.S. or internationally.”

Hanging over international action on warming is whether former President Donald Trump, the leading Republican in the nominating race to challenge President Joe Biden, will return to the White House. The election will occur days before global climate negotiations begin in Azerbaijan in November.

The outcome could determine if the U.S. continues to transition away from fossil fuels, or doubles down on oil and gas development, a path Trump has said he would pursue.

In many countries, climate change has gained prominence as a ballot issue, though voters tend to focus on the economy, energy prices, and other bread and butter concerns over global warming.

Here’s a look at five elections worldwide that could impact climate action.

The United States

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and has pledged if reelected to gut the Inflation Reduction Act, a law with $369 billion in clean energy incentives. He’s also called for more oil and gas drilling, potentially giving momentum to other leaders with weaker climate agendas.

“It gives people a cover,” said Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.

Trump and some hard-right politicians in Europe are seeking to tap disaffected voters who feel left behind by the clean energy transition. In the United Kingdom, where an election also likely looms this fall, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has tried to reverse course on key policies, such as a ban on the sale of gas and diesel vehicles.

Some analysts are betting that markets are more forceful than politics.

“Clean energy is moving fast and is going to move fast regardless of who is going to sit in the White House or the Élysée or in different parts of the world,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said during the World Economic Forum last month.

Then he added: “But I really hope that whoever takes the job in the United States or France or Indonesia or India would be a friend of clean energy.”

Other analysts say a Trump comeback could shake the fragile trust of allies and countries on the front lines of climate change, particularly if it leads to cuts in international climate aid.

The Biden administration’s climate record is also up for scrutiny.

Even as the president has prioritized support for clean energy, he has signed off on new pipelines and drilling, helping the U.S. maintain its position as the world’s largest oil and gas producer.

Those policies could be an election issue in the U.S. And other countries could take cues from Washington to do less on climate.

“I feel optimistic about what we’ve done and what this administration can show for what they’ve done going into the election cycle,” said Colón from the Center for American Progress. “But I do worry about folks hedging around the world on taking the steps they need to take on their own transitions, waiting to see what the result of our election is.”

The European Union

The EU has been at the forefront of climate action globally. The bloc of 27 countries has committed to slashing its greenhouse gas pollution by at least 55 percent by 2030. To get there, it passed the Green Deal, a legislative package aimed at transforming the way it powers homes, industries and transportation systems.

But the costs of the transition have sparked criticism, and politicians in some countries are pushing back on policies they say add to inflationary pressures and hurt jobs.

Populist right-wing parties could emerge with a strong showing in European Parliamentary elections in June, according to by the European Council on Foreign Relations. And a new right-wing majority is likely to oppose ambitious EU climate policy, it noted.

The party of far-right leader Geert Wilders won general elections in the Netherlands in November after he vowed to shred the EU climate deal. Farmers, angry at the raft of environmental regulations, have held noisy protests in France, Germany and elsewhere. Even some EU lawmakers on new climate rules.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, casts his ballot in The Hague, Netherlands, in November.
Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, casts his ballot in The Hague, Netherlands, in November. | Mike Corder/AP

Energy shortages spurred by Russia’s war in Ukraine have raised concerns over energy security and the cost of living.

“This is all ammo that the right has. When you add up energy insecurity, inflation, these factors, people are like, ‘Oh, the right actually understands my needs,’” said Gracelin Baskaran, senior fellow for the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That has not proven positive for the climate in the past.

“I think 2016 to 2020 in the U.S. showed us how much you can roll back climate action in a period of four years, and the world is still struggling to catch up with that,” Baskaran added.

A rightward shift in the EU could foreshadow similar movements in the U.S., said David Victor, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California, San Diego.

Europe and the United States have traditionally been climate leaders, he noted, adding, “And when a leader has become less willing to lead … the whole rest of the train doesn’t move as quickly.”

Indonesia, South Africa, India

These young democracies have large populations and growing energy demands. Whether those needs are met by oil, coal, natural gas or cleaner alternatives could help determine how quickly global temperatures continue rising.

They’ve all indicated some support for the clean energy transition. Indonesia and South Africa are both part of a Group of Seven backed effort to shift away from coal. But they’ve also pursued nationalist agendas that have prioritized energy security over tackling emissions — and securing finance will be key to their move.

The three candidates in Indonesia’s Feb. 14 presidential election would likely continue the climate and energy policies of outgoing President Joko Widodo, analysts say. Critics argue that the policies contain loopholes and don’t fully support efforts to phase out coal or end deforestation. They also raised concerns that a change of government in the U.S. could put money for Indonesia’s coal transition in jeopardy.

The country is a vital source of nickel used in batteries and other clean energy technology. But new coal plants are being built to support its mineral industries, despite Widodo’s pledge to end coal use. A alleges that nickel mining is leading to land and water pollution and threatening lives of local residents.

Widodo’s probable successor, Prabowo Subianto, a former military general with a checkered human rights record, has pledged to accelerate action toward net zero, while also investing to develop the country’s oil and gas infrastructure.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto tosses a T-shirt.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto tosses a T-shirt to supporters. | Binsar Bakkara/AP

South Africa faces a potentially harder transition to clean energy. Support for the governing African National Congress has weakened based in part on its mismanagement of the country’s ongoing power crisis. The nation remains dependent on coal for electricity, making it among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will likely return to power after elections later this year, with fresh resolve to meet his country’s growing energy demands, say observers.

How quickly the country of 1.4 billion people reduces its dependence on fossil fuels could determine whether global temperatures are kept in check. While Modi has pledged to dramatically scale up renewable energy, his government that it plans to nearly double coal production by 2030.

“The government is on the right path on renewable energy but also giving a strong push to coal, which is kind of giving mixed signals,” said Vibhuti Garg, director for South Asia at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

A change of leadership in the U.S. could also have negative consequences for the world’s third-largest emitter.

“India has also been relying on technology transfer as well as finance from the U.S.,” said Garg. “But if there is going to be a stop from the U.S. on developing new technologies on renewables or allowing investors there to invest in renewable energy in other parts of the world as well, then it can be a problem for India, too.”