The Brief — Is perfect the enemy of feasible?
As exemplified in the debate about banning internal combustion engines, many experts still hope for an “efficient” way to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector. But for ambitious climate targets to be realistic, we will have to live with somewhat messy, imperfect solutions.
Thanks to a de-facto German veto, the de-facto ban on internal combustion engine cars, once thought to be a done deal, is back on the political agenda.
The debate focuses on so-called e-fuels, synthetic fuels that can be carbon-neutral if made with green electricity and CO2 from the atmosphere.
If the debate is good for anything, it reveals that many experts still believe in “optimal” or “efficient” solutions to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector. Meanwhile, they are far too vigorous in fighting against solutions they consider suboptimal.
But what if only somewhat inefficient solutions will actually be feasible?
On one side, we have economists: For them, market solutions are typically more desirable than the state imposing something.
For instance, in an op-ed published on EURACTIV last week, economist Jan Schnellenbach argued that banning internal combustion engines for cars would be economically inefficient.
He wrote that although e-fuels are expensive to buy, some consumers might still prefer them over electric vehicles – if it means that they can continue to use their beloved combustion engine cars.
To ideally serve all consumer preferences, he says, the option for e-fuelled combustion engines should be left open.
Meanwhile, the environmental organisation Transport & Environment (T&E) argues that e-fuels are extremely inefficient from an energy perspective, as driving with e-fuels requires much more electricity than would be needed to drive the same distance with an electric car.
Thus, e-fuels should not be used in road transport at all, T&E says.
They shouldn’t even be used in the existing car fleet, the organisation argues. T&E is calling for a lower 2030 target for e-fuels and green hydrogen in the transport sector than was proposed by the European Parliament.
Both sides have a point, but they should take a moment to reflect on their ultimate goal as they exclude avenues that would help reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector.
This is a pressing point as so far, there have been almost no emissions reductions in transport. This is hardly surprising – it is a sector that affects the everyday life of citizens – and politicians shy away from telling them to change their behaviour.
In light of the rapid necessary emissions reductions ahead, is this really the time to nitpick about solutions not being perfectly efficient?
Economists like Schnellenbach focus too heavily on economic efficiency. To their profession, it is unthinkable that an inefficient pathway towards climate neutrality is feasible.
But economically inefficient solutions can be more politically feasible than their alternatives, for instance, when they provide the urgently-needed planning security for industries and workers that makes the transition more predictable and fair.
For environmental organisations like T&E, it is not possible for an energy-inefficient pathway, like one considering e-fuels for existing cars, to be feasible.
And it’s true, electricity is not yet abundant nor green – and more solar panels and wind turbines need more resources, more mining, and more political effort.
But energy-inefficient solutions, too, can be politically feasible. For instance when the required e-fuels come from countries which also have an economic benefit in exporting climate-neutral fuels to Europe (think: Saudi Arabia in a world with less and less need for crude oil).
Even when all combustion engine cars are eventually replaced by electric cars, we will still need massive amounts of synthetic fuels for shipping and aviation anyway, so scaling up the production of e-fuels in sun-rich countries doesn’t seem like too much of a wasted investment.
Therefore, this would be a good moment for everyone to hold on and think twice before arguing against any measure that can help to bring down transport emissions.
Ultimately, only a combination of many measures will suffice to bring down emissions to net zero.
So, instead of “no e-fuels for road transport” or “no combustion engine ban”, how about yes to both?
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Look out for…
- Commission President Ursula von der Leyen receives President of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides.
- Commission Vice-President Dubravka Suica in NY, USA: participates in a ministerial meeting for EU member states organised by EU Delegation to the UN.
- Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager meets with Administrator of the United Nations Development Program Achim Steiner.
- Tripartite Social Summit on Wednesday.