Not every country is on board with the green agenda
The EU may aspire to become a geopolitical superpower, but arguments over energy at a leaders’ summit this weekend suggested it has enough difficulties keeping its internal affairs in order.
The summit was overshadowed by a dispute over the EU’s law to ban sales of new CO2-emitting cars by 2035. The bloc agreed its combustion engine ban last year as the flagship policy of its Green Deal for cutting carbon emissions. Now, countries with significant car manufacturing industries seem to have woken up to the fact that, in the context of such a huge industrial realignment, 12 years isn’t a very long time.
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Germany led the dissent, insisting that combustion engine vehicles should still be allowed if they run on synthetic e-fuels, which are deemed to be carbon-neutral because they are made using captured CO2. After weeks of heated debate, Berlin won out, with EU officials promising on Saturday to adjust the combustion engine ban to exempt cars running on e-fuels.
Critics call the debate irrelevant, saying there is no chance of production capacity for e-fuels coming anywhere near making them a viable alternative for the automotive sector. Similar arguments could be made about electric cars, too — manufacturers admit that the technology and infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles as cost-effective, reliable and versatile as traditional cars are still lacking, and that they are often only attractive for customers if supported by subsidies and tax breaks.
Such problems might be overcome with sufficient investment. But the dispute over the combustion engine ban has highlighted friction between national economic interests and international moral pressure over climate change.
Another major issue hanging over the EU summit was a new “Net-Zero Industry Act” proposed by the European Commission, which does not include nuclear energy as a “strategic” technology worthy of investment and incentivisation. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted that “nuclear can play a role in our decarbonization effort,” but said “only the Net Zero technologies we deem strategic for the future – like solar panels, batteries and electrolysers – will have access to the full advantages and benefits.”
The EU’s refusal to come to terms with nuclear power is a continued source of frustration for nuclear-dependent France and other countries betting on new developments, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Germany, together with Austria, is again at the centre of this bizarre policymaking, due to long-standing and virulent opposition to nuclear power. This opposition previously contributed to the EU becoming hooked on Russian gas; now, it threatens to scupper development of the most viable clean energy source available.
Such a lack of pragmatism may lead to more unintended consequences. The EU’s Commissioner for the Internal Market claims the energy transformation will make the bloc “an industrial leader that exports its products and technologies – not its jobs”. But ballooning imports from China and an unprecedented trade deficit are ominous signs for the EU’s continued industrial competitiveness.
Growing trepidation among car-manufacturing countries about the ban on combustion engines is just one example of concerns about the future viability of European industry. While the EU paints an idealistic picture of a future in which new high-tech industries export from Europe to the world, a lack of pragmatism in its energy transformation could lead to a much harsher reality.