Europe’s energy conflict fuels outbreak of realism about climate policy

Very quietly, late on New Year’s Eve, the European Union issued a document that has the potential to transform Europe politically and economically. The product of hard negotiation behind closed doors over many months, this document, when finally approved, will create for Europe a uniform definition of energy sources eligible for climate-oriented investment and carbon-related government spending. To the astonishment of many, and the fury of others, prominent on the list of approved energy sources is nuclear power and natural gas.

In a dramatic reversal of a recent trend, in which politics is shaped by climate policy aspirations, this initiative represents climate policy being shaped by political realities — most particularly those in Germany and France. Ever since Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer gave life to the idea of European unity more than 60 years ago, that project in its various iterations has turned on an axis of Franco-German accord. What is remarkable is that this new development has occurred only by virtue of the two nations reconciling their deep conflict over energy policy.

The heart of the dispute is nuclear power, which Germany has eliminated from its energy mix over the past decade while France leads the world in reliance on nuclear power. Though the two nations went in opposite directions, both did so for reasons of domestic politics. For former German chancellor Angela Merkel, accommodation with the rising Green Party in the wake of public alarm over Japan’s nuclear disaster in Fukushima was the imperative driving her 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power plants by 2022. For French President Emmanuel Macron — whose nation gets 70.6 percent of its energy from nuclear, and whose infant presidency was almost toppled by the massive “yellow vest” protests over gasoline taxes in 2018, and who now faces a difficult battle for re-election in 2022 — any retreat from nuclear power was unthinkable.

Germany lobbied hard to exclude nuclear from the “approved” list of energy sources, but France pushed back even harder and was strongly supported by six other EU nations, whose nuclear reliance ranges from 37.3 percent to 53.1 percent (Czech Republic, Slovenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia).

Merkel bowed to the inevitable but extracted a price: the inclusion of natural gas on the list. With nuclear gone, and reliance on dirty coal from China a political liability, Germany’s energy future clearly lies with natural gas — Nord Stream today and Nord Stream 2 likely within months.

The larger political context behind these developments is that European climate policy, with shocking abruptness, has hit a reality wall. While Western leaders were basking in the celebratory glow of the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, they blithely ignored the dire warnings reported in the Wall Street Journal from economists and climate analysts alike, that sharply reducing emissions would entail “staggering costs and looming political battles.” Now those political battles have erupted across Europe as the “staggering costs” in the form of wholesale home heating and electricity prices that have increased a stunning 300 percent since last winter, hammering European consumers who are also voters.

A prime example of a political leader getting a wake-up call regarding the unrealistic promises he made at Glasgow is Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was recently warned by a parliamentary ally of the “catastrophic” damage to the government deriving from pledges such as banning new internal combustion cars by 2030 — and reminded that “Elections are won or lost in people’s wallets.” Not surprisingly, pledges and deadlines are being sharply revised and party manifestos hastily rewritten.

These mounting political pressures are also opening European eyes to the inherent absurdities of their own pretensions, such as trumpeting the EU’s 20 percent reduction in emissions since 1990, which becomes laughable in light of the fact that worldwide emissions increased 50 percent in the same time period. Also more noticeable is that China, far from crippling its own economy as Western nations are doing, merely pays lip service to climate goals while unapologetically accepting its role as CO2 emissions exporter to the world, in terms of metric tons, albeit with a little assistance from other developing giants such as India and Brazil.

If Merkel at last recognized the folly of Germany’s climate policy overreach and Macron decided that re-election as president of France was better than virtue-signaling on climate, the world would owe them a debt for teaching us that reality can be avoided temporarily, but it never can be canceled. We might also hope that some American politicians are taking note of what is happening with their Old-World counterparts.

William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University.  He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.

Energy Environment