Responsible Stewardship of the Planet Requires Prioritizing Human Flourishing
Here in the European Union, environmental activists and politicians have been struggling for at least a decade to have the internal combustion engine—the engine that has literally driven the economies of the advanced western democracies—outlawed. This past session, the EU Parliament had planned to pass legislation prohibiting the sale and licensing of new vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel starting in 2035, but the plan ran into real opposition from Italy, Germany, and Poland. Why might that be the case? The terms of debate have shifted.
In earlier debates, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini had labelled the ban on fossil-fueled cars "economic suicide." Salvini, like any responsible statesman, shows in that assessment a higher regard for the well-being of citizens than for the questionable benefits of reducing CO2 emissions. For its part, Germany, responding to concerns from the public and from the domestic automobile industry, demanded that the legislation include exceptions for so-called e-fuels (link in German) and other synthetic equivalents of the to-be-banned fuels, and this nearly killed the legislation. The Poles? They’re bringing legal action against the EU after having supported the Germans in blocking the total ban. Polish Climate Minister Anna Moskwa, noted, rightly:
The solution of banning combustion cars in 2035 is harmful to all European economies ... I believe that if today we are making a decision for 2035, then today it is necessary to look at its consequences for the following years.
Right now, it seems the Germans, French, Dutch, Belgians, and other key nations driving the EU’s environmental policies, though ostensibly still committed to their climate goals for 2055, have had to finally take some measure of account of reality. Their economies cannot function without the internal combustion engine. Banning it would result in immiseration, impoverishment, and likely exact a cost in human lives.
It looks as if at least some politicians in the European Union are catching on to Michael Schellenberger`s argument: the world is warmer today than it was in 1900, and that is on the balance a good thing. Global warming is not a threat to the existence of the human race, and there is no desperate need to reduce CO2 because the climate apocalypse is not happening. Moreover, fossil fuels have the proven benefit of providing energy to more people at lower costs than any of the alternatives, and abolishing them will always disproportionately impact the poor, who are least able to pay the higher costs. “Dependence” on fossil fuels is not akin to heroin addiction, as the “Just Stop Oil” crowd says.
How dependent are European economies on fossil fuels today? Ninety-four percent of all freight transport in Europe is conducted via highway vehicles and ships. Most of these are fueled by diesel and gasoline and will be for the foreseeable future. As Volker Wissing, Germany’s Transportation Minister, pointed out earlier this year, as cited by Duggan Flannakin:
We need e-fuels as there is no alternative if we want to operate our vehicle fleet in a climate-neutral way. Whoever is serious about climate-neutral mobility must keep all technological options open and also use them. I don’t understand this fight against the car and why people want to ban some technologies.
Wissing was right to admonish his fellow Europeans about the need to be open to all energy-technology options if one is serious about “climate-neutral mobility.” If one buys into the idea that “climate-neutral” energy policy is necessary, beneficial, or worth pursuing at all, mandating impractical or economically destructive solutions is not the way to go about it. David Frost, Lord Frost of Allerton and Conservative member of the House of Lords, sounded a consonant note in a recent address at the Global Warming Policy Foundation, saying:
So, we must keep asking: is Net Zero 2050 an achievable goal at an acceptable cost? And are we going about it in the right way? My answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is no. I am going to argue that the route we have chosen to deliver net zero is inevitably wasteful and damaging; that it is totally implausible that it will boost growth, and much more likely that it will reduce it.
A Sea Change in Public Opinion
These developments signal an overall shift in the “climate consensus” in Europe. Indeed, Pieter Cleppe, writing in The European Conservative, does his readers a service in pointing out the recent successes of voter revolts against a variety of green policies, including one on motor vehicle emissions, in the EU and Great Britain. The obviously foreseeable consequences of Net Zero 2050 for regular citizens in the European Union are starting to be noticed by the voters, who are (at last, and let’s hope not too late) expressing their justified opposition to their own impoverishment.
When Labour Party politician Keir Starmer in the UK is reported to remark, "I hate tree-huggers" to a meeting of the shadow cabinet (a remark the politician later denied making), and when the leader of the Free Democrats in Germany, Christian Lindner, is willing to raise tensions in Germany’s fragile coalition government to block a proposed total ban on fossil fuels, a very significant move away from uncritical acceptance of EU climate diktats has begun.
Hoping that this trend continues, we can then ask what other technologies might be included in the mix. Although new vehicles using gasoline and diesel would be banned, those fuels would continue to be offered as long as there is demand for them. They would be sold along with e-fuels, which are synthetically derived equivalents of gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. Though they are presently expensive to produce, e-fuels will presumably become cheaper as market demand for them increases.
Then there’s methanol, an essentially infinitely renewable resource commonly called “wood alcohol.” Given that methanol can be produced easily and efficiently, it might make a better option for motor vehicles than e-fuel or electric or hydrogen power cells. When Robert Zubrin discussed the future use of methanol in flex-fuel road vehicles and other applications for transport and industry back in 2006, there were few companies seriously researching that option. Today, multiple major marine engine manufacturers, such as Germany’s MAN and Helsinki’s Wärtsilä, are already producing ship engines that run on methanol. MAN’s methanol-only engines entered production last year, while Wärtsilä boasts on its website that its methanol maritime engines have been powering the Stena Line since 2015.
Meanwhile in the U. S.
The U. S. seems ever to lag behind Europe in adjusting its environmental policies, even though the current administration and regulatory agencies seem to take their cues from the same environmental extremists who aim to “ban carbon emissions.” As of this writing, nine states have plans to ban the sale of gas-powered cars after 2035, but without the kinds of qualifications that have been forced on the EU by its more realistic members.
On the federal level, the EPA has imposed tailpipe emissions standards that will amount to the same effect by banning production of new non-electric vehicles starting in 2032. Neither of these legislative developments shows the least cognizance of the realities of either the environmental vagaries of producing electric cars or the fact that there is nothing like sufficient infrastructure in place that could support a U. S. car market dominated by electric vehicles. Mark Mills, writing for the Manhattan Institute, refers to this idea as a blind act of wishful thinking over practical reality in his report, Electric Vehicles for Everyone? The Impossible Dream.
These decisions have been imposed by state and local authorities in spite of the existence of an obvious and readily available alternative: promoting plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). That solution to the “carbon emissions” problem (a problem that does not really exist, but that`s a different argument), has the advantage of not requiring an unfeasible expansion of electrical infrastructure. As Walter Myers III pointed out in his own response to the recent federal regulatory changes:
If PHEVs were the preponderant vehicles, there would be no rush to build out an all-EV infrastructure, giving filling stations time to adjust and “right size” the number of fast chargers based on market demand rather than government mandates.
Mandating EVs only, on the other hand, would demand that an all-EV infrastructure be built starting yesterday, which obviously cannot be done, even if the EPA (and the states imposing mandates) had provided the needed funding ten years ago.
It should also be noted that the obsession with CO2 neutrality itself is an excessive response to misrepresentations of climate data, particularly of the effects of a warmer planet on human flourishing. Former Caltech Provost Steven Koonin, author of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters and former Undersecretary of Science with the Department of Energy in the Obama Administration, summarized the situation as follows:
If you look at the data from 1900 till today, the globe warmed by about 1.3 degrees. That's this global temperature record that everybody more or less agrees upon. … Since 1900 until now, the global population has gone up by a factor of five. We're now 8 billion people. The average lifespan or life expectancy went from 32 years to 73 years. The GDP per capita in constant dollars went up by a factor of seven [and] the literacy rate went up by a factor of four …
We’ve seen the greatest flourishing of human well-being ever, even as the globe warmed by 1.3 degrees. And the kicker of course is that the death rate from extreme weather events fell by a factor of 50. … So to think that another 1.3 or 1.4 whatever degrees over the next century is going to significantly derail that? It beggars belief.
The data, Koonin maintains, support the inference that the planet has warmed, but not that the warming of the planet is in any way catastrophic or even primarily due to human activity. Humans have already flourished through more than a century of global warming. Fixating on “climate goals” of dubious merit while ignoring the potential costs in human flourishing is not the way to go.
Geopolitical Consequences of Misplaced Priorities
Moreover, as Americans and other Westerners learned during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, there can be geopolitical consequences of making a nation’s energy supply dependent on a single foreign source. The European Union is finding this out the hard way right now, as Shellenberger pointed out in an article for The Free Press written mere days after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
The U. S., and the West more generally, may soon learn the same lesson at the hands of China, should the Chinese Communist Party decide that exporting lithium for the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries and/or the batteries themselves to non-Communist nations does not serve the greater glory of the workers-of-the-world revolution. It is morally irresponsible for a liberal democracy that respects human rights to subject its people’s energy needs to the mercy of autocracies that don’t.
Recovering Moral Sanity
Ironically, the arguments made to support green policies are always couched in moral terms. We are told we have some responsibility to the planet that takes precedence over our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. In the case of energy policy, these arguments translate practically into an argument that the poor must be made poorer still, and the middle class immiserated, in order to “save the planet.”
Poor Gaia, it seems, is utterly defenseless without the protection of a cadre of self-appointed (mostly) white, upper-class, priests, priestesses, and planet guardians. Our every exhalation contains CO2. Would the political expression of the profoundly anti-human, deeply anti-Christian philosophy driving the green movement today refrain from taxing our very breath if they could? It may sound insane, now, but two bats of the eye ago, outlawing internal combustion engines seemed insane, too. We see in the green movement today what G. K. Chesterton in Chapter Seven of Orthodoxy called “a cosmic creed,” which “upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity.”
A morally sane view of reality—a biblical view of reality—balances responsible stewardship of creation with the flourishing of the crown of creation, humanity. Thankfully, many in the EU have begun to recover this proper ethical balance. May this recovery of moral sanity in Europe continue and spread.John D. Martin
is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/signs-of-sanity-in-european-energy-policy