European farmers’ protests show the need for a just transition to Net Zero

French farmers stop their tractors on the A16 motorway near L'Isle-Adam, on January 30, 2024, as French farmers maintain roadblocks on key highways into Paris (Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)
French farmers stop their tractors on the A16 motorway near L'Isle-Adam, on January 30, 2024, as French farmers maintain roadblocks on key highways into Paris (Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)

As many countries prepare to go to the polls in 2024, the need for a transition to Net Zero emissions has become a key political battleground. In Europe, the sustainability of farming practices is the latest flashpoint, intertwining political interests, ideologies and food supply.

Farmers’ protests have spilled into the streets of Paris, Berlin and Brussels, transforming urban centres and turning motorways into battlegrounds where the clashes between agricultural interests, sustainability policies, economic inequality and nationalist manipulation play out.

In France, the EU’s biggest agricultural producer, a blockade of 800 tractors has surrounded the capital to ‘ starve Paris’. The farmers’ grievances range from government taxes, cheap imports and water storage issues to price pressures from retailers and red tape from regulations, particularly around the controls on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Simultaneously, farmers are worried about the threats arising from climate change (such as drought) and attempts to reduce the emissions that cause it.

The situation shows that food system transformation to achieve Net Zero – like the energy and transport transitions (whether renewable energy or the roll-out of electric vehicles) – will be stalled if the policies to achieve them are perceived to be more threatening to citizens and worker/farmer livelihoods than the impacts of climate change.

The farmer protests are a prime example of where sustainability risks being derailed because insufficient thought has been given to the need for a ‘just transition’ – one that brings people most affected by the transition on the journey by preserving their livelihoods. If not, the rural communities’ vulnerabilities – to left and right – will be exploited for political gain.

Farmers as political pawns?

Political interests from right and left have adeptly positioned farmers as pawns in a larger political chess game, capitalizing on their concerns to advance their own agendas.

The agrarian community, traditionally seen as conservative, has become a focal point for right-wing parties seeking to consolidate their voter base. Right-wing political forces have strategically instrumentalized the farming community, leveraging their concerns to fuel protests against sustainability policies across various European capitals.

In Germany, right-wing extremists allegedly used social media platforms to amplify the voices of protesting farmers, shaping public opinion and garnering sympathy for their cause, tapping into the depth of public discontent. There is growing militancy amongst farmers over subsidy cuts – even talk of political uprisings and toppling the German government.

European governments are also criticized from the political left – as liberal elites that are ignoring the needs of ordinary people. Ecologically-minded farming communities also attack governments for taking insufficient measures to make agriculture and food more sustainable.

In the case of Germany, climate and environmental groups are disappointed that the Socialist-Green-Liberal government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has not made progress in implementing the agriculture, climate and environment agenda of the Green Party.

The protests over the subsidy phase-outs for tractor diesel fuel shows how the clean energy transition and food systems transition are interlinked. Only after intense protests did the German government agree to phase in the diesel measure over a three-year period.

National vs. European identity

Within the EU, the clash between sustainable food system policies and farming interests has also ignited debates about the balance between national and European identity, further influencing voter sentiments and polarization.

Efforts to co-opt the farming community could lead to a shift in voter allegiances, with farmers becoming a crucial voting bloc for political parties with anti-European, nationalistic, agendas.

The intertwining of farming sustainability and political interests in forthcoming elections – not just in Europe, but across the world – highlights the complex interplay between environmental policies and traditional sectors. As farmers continue to protest across capitals, the electoral consequences may reshape political landscapes.

‘Just transitions’ in agriculture

The ongoing protests demonstrate that transitions to sustainable agriculture, energy and transport policies can cause significant political opposition across and beyond the target sector, aggravating existing inequalities or causing new ones and hampering engagement by the affected communities in the transition itself.

As highlighted in a recent briefing to the UK Parliament, it is crucial to implement nuanced policies that address both environmental concerns and the economic well-being of the affected community – making the transition socially just in practice.

In European agriculture, at a conceptual level, principles of procedural justice (seats at the table when decisions are made) and distributive justice (how costs and benefits are shared) need to be at the centre of policy design.

In practice, policies need to do more than mandate the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Political processes are required that enable agricultural actors, farmers and citizens to cooperate and create a common understandings of feasible food transition pathways.

Economic incentives and instruments will be key to cover some of the costs of producers and consumers. For example, in 2023 the UK government updated the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) which offers an income and rewards farmers for practices that help produce food sustainably and protect the environment.

These existing instruments can be built into Just Agricultural Transition mechanisms that provide comprehensive support. It’s important to note that this economic support is not a handout, but a public investment – creating a resilient food system that benefits society as a whole.

In the case of France, a blueprint for a just transition of the food system with specific policy options was already commissioned and funded by the French government in 2021, but the measures have so far not been implemented.

As the world grapples with the pressing need for sustainable and environmentally conscious practices, it is crucial to ensure that the transition to Net Zero does not leave behind or alienate those who form the backbone of traditional rural communities.

If governments cannot manage this, there is the real risk of a citizens’ uprising – as happened with the ‘Gillets Jaunes’ protests – which will stall the transition, just as the risks are becoming realized as a cause for concern.

Dr Patrick Schröder, Senior Research Fellow, Environment and Society Centre and Professor Tim Benton, Research Director; Director, Environment and Society Centre.

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