Germany’s pro-business Free Democratic party (FDP) has long been an uncompromising defender of the biggest domestic car industry in Europe. A couple of years ago, it campaigned against proposals for a national speed limit on autobahns – a move that would have helped reduce Germany’s CO2 emissions. But as a coalition partner in Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrat-led government, it is taking environmental obstructionism to a new level.
The FDP is the driving force behind German opposition to Brussels’ plans to ban sales of new cars with internal combustion engines from 2035. Until this month, the date was considered a done deal, and constitutes a vital pillar of the EU’s strategy to reach net zero emissions by 2050. But Germany is now insisting that the European Commission offers a get-out clause, allowing car manufacturers to carry on producing the engines if they can find a way to deliver carbon-neutral “e-fuels” to run them.
The highly technical nature of this debate risks obscuring its dangerous implications for Europe’s climate ambitions. In the context of economic pressures triggered by the war in Ukraine, there are disturbing signs that the mood music on net zero targets is changing. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has begun to talk darkly about the potential impact of the “environmental push” on the country’s economic fabric. Her deputy, Matteo Salvini, has described the timetable for transition to electric vehicles as “economic and social suicide”, and a “gift” to China.
The danger is that where Germany has self-interestedly led regarding its own flagship industry, other countries with their own preoccupations may follow. In the Netherlands, the success of a pro-farmer party at recent elections has led to speculation that a pledge by The Hague to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 may not be met. EU plans to reduce emissions from intensive agriculture more generally have been scaled down. Other green goals, on chemicals and biodiversity, are being challenged. Climate laggards such as Poland and Hungary, whose governments have barely paid lip service to the 2050 zero emissions target, are doubtless scenting the possibility of fruitful alliances.
Rather than risk a prolonged and damaging standoff with Berlin, it seems likely that Brussels will offer some heavily caveated concessions on cars. But as Germany’s exasperated Green vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, reportedly observed this week, this standoff has meant that “the largest ever piece of EU climate-protected legislation is starting to be undone”. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the threshold 1.5C target for global warming is almost certain to be breached in the 2030s, this is a very bad look indeed.
Europe, given its wealth and its industrial history, bears a special responsibility in the battle to contain global heating. Hard times have undoubtedly made the politics of fulfilling net zero pledges more difficult, and handed an opportunity to the populist right in particular. But the response cannot be to delay and water down necessary action in the hope that, Mr Micawber-style, some new technology turns up to solve the problem. As cold political winds begin to blow, the pace and necessity of Europe’s green transition urgently needs defending.