What would Churchill do?

Coal or oil. That was the question facing ‘a young man in a hurry’ who had just been put in charge of the British navy. A century ago coal-powered steamships were the proven technology. On the other hand, there was a new technology: the internal combustion engine (ICE). Proponents of the ICE said it would be faster, healthier for the crew and operated by far fewer people which made it a lot cheaper to run. Of course it wasn’t a 100% proven technology. It was new. Would it always work? And would there be enough oil?

And what about all these people employed on the steamships? There were firemen overseeing the fires that boiled the water; there were coal trimmers to load the coal into the scorchingly hot furnaces. And of course there were engineers keeping the fantastically complex but difficult to control steam engines in good condition.

Many leading government and industry officials advised Churchill to stick with coal. ‘Let’s not move too fast,’ they warned. But whilst the Brits waivered, Germany – an ascending geopolitical rival of the British empire – was busily experimenting with internal combustion propulsion. It could be dangerous for them to outpace the British navy technologically. What would Churchill do?

Of course Churchill did not listen to the coal lobby and when war came, the British navy was prepared for it. The decision marks out Churchill’s foresight, vision, determination, and above all, leadership.

One hundred years later the European successors to Churchill are faced with a similar dilemma. Do we stick with the technologies that have served us well (diesel, petrol) or do we embrace the technologies of the future (hybrids, battery-electric and hydrogen)? For Europe’s industrial and economic future, but also its own security, it is a momentous decision.

This battle for the future is being fought over in the law regulating car CO2 emissions. The car, oil and diesel industries want to preserve the status quo which serves them so well and they have rallied behind the Commission proposal (-15% by 2025, -30% by 2030) which is essentially business as usual.

But they’ve met a formidable opponent in Miriam Dalli, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator. Dalli has proposed to ramp up the ambition of the Commission proposal and her call for a 25% cut in 2025 and 50% in 2030 complements environment ministers’ – including those from big car-producing countries France, Italy, Sweden, and the UK – call for higher ambition in the latest Council debate. There’s a clear majority in the making for supporting higher ambition.

You would expect the Commission’s climate department to welcome this. After all, they are telling the world the EU wants to increase its 2030 climate ambition from -40 to -45% and are working on a strategy to decarbonise Europe by 2050. Surely they wouldn’t mind a bit of additional action to tackle our biggest (and growing) climate problem.

But no, they are not happy. Apart from the usual line about the Commission proposal striking ‘the right balance’ (read: between what Clima could get away with and what Germany’s commissioner Günther Oettinger and President Juncker would allow) they are also playing a much more dangerous game by claiming more ambition means ‘factory closures’. Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete used the environment council to tell ministers Dalli’s proposal would cost 60,000 jobs (a number plucked out of thin air, as far as we can tell).

The factory closures line is usually the car industry’s last resort; the Trump card if you like. From the introduction of catalysts to the euro standards for air pollutants to the CO2 standards, the car industry has always claimed regulation will shut down factories. It has never been true. And if you look at a host of independent studies or the Commission’s own impact assessment, it won’t be true this time either. The real risk for jobs lies elsewhere – the industry’s own plans for further factory automation first – but especially in the fact that if European carmakers continue to invest seven times more in electrification in China than in Europe, the jobs of the future will be in China, not Europe.

By playing the Trump card the Commission is taking a path down a very slippery slope. The fight to limit global warming is all about changing the status quo. The low-carbon economy and jobs of the future cannot be the same as today. We can’t keep all the diesel and coal jobs but we’ve been here before. There are no more firemen and coal trimmers on ships but there are plenty of jobs Churchill and his contemporaries could never have even imagined. We are also infinitely wealthier now.

Churchillian comparisons are always a bit unfair but when it comes to leadership, vision, and also just getting the facts right, the Commission’s climate department doesn’t make the cut.

Comments

Hugh Sutherland's picture

Comment: 

Well William, Churchill isn't around any more and the world is a very different place today but I get you take on this issue. For a start, the modern world has such things a International Trade Agreements that drive the need for logistics mobility. The US/China is a typical example. I mean, why would China buy American steel and other commodities simply to add value and ship cheaper goods back to the US market than they can make in the country?
There should be stricter tariffs on greenhouse gases in such case, if nothing more, to bring this madness under the spotlight.

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William Todts's picture

Executive Director

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