by Daniele Scalea

EU bans fossil fuel cars

On Wednesday, the European Parliament voted by a majority in favor of the Von Der Leyen Commission's proposal to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars and vans by 100 percent by 2035. Concretely, this means that in twelve and a half years it will be prohibited to sell gasoline, diesel and LPG cars.

The motivation, of course, is to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases considered to be the source of the current global warming. It is worth noting in this regard that Europe, according to 2020 data, produced 3.6 billion tons of CO2, which is just over one-fifth of that produced in the Asia Pacific. This is 11 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The transport sector accounts for about 1/5 of total EU production, or about 2.3 percent of global emissions. This is what is at stake. Let us now look at the size of the gamble.

Auto manufacturers' criticism

The EU decision was criticized by vehicle manufacturers, who would have preferred to invest in innovation rather than act by bans and outlawing. Obviously, the switch to only electric or hydrogen-powered cars will require massive investments to adapt the infrastructure network, particularly by dramatically increasing charging and refueling points. In this regard, the auto industry believes that the EU Commission is vastly underestimating the necessary requirements. Certainly, it will require many billions of euros from European taxpayers to be invested in this infrastructure adaptation.

Another concern raised by vehicle manufacturers is to make mobility "sustainable" not only for the environment, but also for customers' pockets. The electric car, as is well known, costs more than an internal combustion car. It can be assumed that, by virtue of economies of scale, by mandating the electric car for everyone the price of production will be lowered. This is possible, but it cannot be ignored that a major component of an electric car's cost is in the rare earths, lithium and cobalt needed to produce its motor and battery.

Skyrocketing prices

The price of lithium is currently at its all-time high. It peaked in March at 500 thousand yuan per ton and is now trading at 475 thousand yuan. Compared with a year ago, the price has multiplied more than six times. Ninety percent of the world's lithium production is concentrated in three countries: Australia, Chile and China.

The price of cobalt is also on the rise. Costing $29,000 a ton two years ago, it is now at $73,000 after peaking at $83,000 in March. Seventy percent of the world's production is in Congo; the second largest producer, well behind, is Russia, currently under EU sanctions.

As for rare earths, the name already gives an idea of their scarcity. The price is also at an all-time high, doubled from a year ago. China leads the way as mining and refining. Theoretically, one could increase rare earth mining elsewhere as well, but that would pose a new ethical dilemma for environmentalists. Rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits to thorium, which is radioactive and exposure to which has been linked to increased cancer cases.

Not that Congo's cobalt mines are any less morally problematic. Exposure to toxic waste is believed to be at the root of congenital malformations in miners' children, while various NGOs denounce child labor exploitation, numerous work-related deaths, and "disciplining" of labor through armed guards hired by mining companies.

Car only for the rich?

Returning to the price issue, the need to produce more and more electric cars could negate any economies of scale due to the scarcity of the aforementioned raw materials. Car ownership risks becoming an unaffordable luxury good for many. After all, already in the last decade there has been a 40 percent decline in young (under 25) car owners in Italy. In the U.S., there is a decline in licensees in all age groups, but that among those under 45 has been going on steadily since the 1980s.

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Intensifying that trend would not displease environmentalists. In Britain, where the Johnson government is making decisions similar to those in the EU, the head of an influential environmentalist think tank has made it clear that the transition to electric cars will not be enough: "We need to reduce overall car use," in favor of public transport, cycling and walking.

In itself, it is not bad to imagine a future in which people use cars less. Walking or biking is less polluting, healthier, and causes fewer accidents. But they should do it by their own free choice, and not because they are forced to by the inability (or prohibition) of owning a car. In an age when finding work close to home is less and less common, for many people being able to get around by car is a necessity before it is a convenience. Public transportation in much of Italy is uncomfortable and unreliable. For many workers, substituting public transportation for their cars would mean not only more uncomfortable travel, but also sacrificing daily hours that they could devote to family or rest.

Already we have to suffer regular sermons from champions of environmentalism who then use super-polluting private jets for their personal travels. And it can take only four hours of flying on such a jet to equal the CO2 emissions that an average European citizen makes in an entire year. Assuming a future in which the automobile will be the preserve of the wealthiest, while the rest will have to cram for hours in unhealthy public transportation or wear out the soles of their shoes, raises the very slight suspicion that the environmentalist crusade is a tad classist.

Is it worth it?

Finally, an upstream problem. Let us assume that it is worth replacing all internal combustion cars with electric cars. However, electricity does not come from nowhere. Energy production is shifted from the car engine to the power plant. But for zero emissions to be real, the production of that power plant must also be zero emissions. This is the concern expressed by the 186 scientists who signed an open letter addressed to the Commission and MEPs: in their view, the production of the electricity and batteries needed to build and power electric cars will eventually equalize the reduction in emissions resulting from the banning of internal combustion engines.

P.S.: believing in the need for the people's representatives to be monitored and evaluated by the citizens they are supposed to represent, we point out that in this document, on pp. 656 and 657, you can see which MEPs voted for and which voted against.

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Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.