As COP26 starts in Glasgow, expectations are low. The climate change conference is overshadowed by a global energy squeeze that has punctured optimism about the smoothness of a transition to a net zero world. Soaring fuel and energy prices have highlighted the disruption, costs and fraught geopolitics of the energy transition. China embodies the mood: having directed producers to buy coal at any price, it reiterated its existing (insufficient) 2030 emissions targets days before the conference started. President Xi is not attending.

Western leaders may be open to more ambitious targets, but face direct political consequences if decarbonisation hurts their voter’s wallets. A broader backlash against green policies has been on the cards since France’s Gilet Jaunes protests erupted in 2018. With the need to drastically lower emissions now an established consensus among political elites, opposition to top-down climate policies is a relatively untapped well of anti-establishment resentment.

This resentment may emerge in unexpected ways; few Gilet Jaunes were climate change deniers, but a seemingly innocuous carbon tax was strikingly effective at mobilising their grievances that party politics couldn’t reach. It may yet coalesce into a climate change denial movement through the same mechanisms that anti-vax and COVID-denial beliefs have taken root in the face of a similarly global crisis. But a more effective and subtle ‘loyal opposition’ movement may emerge as climate targets affect more areas of policymaking and daily life. The lack of international cooperation on display ahead of COP26 leaves national policymakers more exposed, increasing the potential for discontent.

An anti-green backlash would add to elevated protest and civil unrest risks globally, especially in OECD countries where inequality and COVID-19 have frayed social contracts and publics are due to be confronted by disruptive policy measures sooner. A more contested and disorderly transition towards net zero is likely if governments fear to grasp the nettle of tax increases and lifestyle changes, implying policy instability and regulatory uncertainty, whatever is agreed (or not) in Glasgow.

This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on country risk and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx

Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth Scotland/Flickr