Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Italy leads revolt against Europe's electric vehicle transition

Italy's nationalist government is leading the revolt against European Union plans to tighten vehicle emissions limits, vowing to defend the automotive industry in a country still attached to the combustion engine. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's far-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government shifted its fight to planned "Euro 7" standards on pollutants, joining seven other EU member states — including France and Poland — to demand Brussels scrap the limits due to come into force in July 2025.

"Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared," said Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent defender of national industry in the face of what he has called an "ideological vision" of climate change.

The EU plan "is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view," added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni's post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it "madness" that would "destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers" while benefiting China, a leader in electric vehicles.

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that "environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place," blaming a "strong industrial lobby in Italy" in the automobile and energy sectors.

"None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge," he told AFP.

"Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as a climate champion. And it's clear that with Meloni's government, the situation has deteriorated," he said.

Jobs "orientated towards traditional engines"
In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

"Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines," noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

Italians are attached to their cars, ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, "we are extremely behind."

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country a fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

"There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy," Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP. "The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat."

In addition, "purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So, the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries."

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees. "We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model," he said.


Germany’s Greens in free fall amid corruption allegations

“Could Germany get a Green chancellor?” asked many media outlets ahead of the country’s last federal elections in 2021. In the spring of that year, the party polled at 28% in some surveys, a record for them and the strongest of all parties at the time. But since then much has changed. Public scandals and unpopular politics have sent the party into free fall. A survey published this week put the Greens in fourth place, behind the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Many commentators have pinned the increasing disaffection of voters on one of their most prominent leaders: Robert Habeck. Germany’s Vice Chancellor and economy minister was long hailed as the Greens’ strongest asset. With a reputation as a charismatic and pragmatic problem-solver, he seemed the right man to tackle the energy crisis that hit the country when Russia invaded Ukraine and exposed Berlin’s dependence on Moscow for fossil fuels. Habeck emerged as “Germany’s energy hero…the man of the hour,” as the Economist put it.

Now half of German voters want him to resign, according to a recent survey, putting him at 17th place in their popularity ranking of German politicians — the second lowest of all cabinet ministers.

Some hope that Habeck’s fall and that of his party will be temporary, caused only by a recent scandal involving Patrick Graichen, a close aide and deputy minister, who resigned last week following allegations of cronyism. But since then other people in Habeck’s inner circle have also come under closer scrutiny, much to the glee of opposition politicians. Julia Klöckner of the Christian Democrats (CDU) spoke of a “systematic issue due to the close connection between Green members of the government, climate activists, lobby groups and institutions”.

The CDU stands to gain much from the situation. Together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, with whom they form an electoral bloc, they currently poll as the strongest party at 30%. Even one of the Greens’ coalition partners, the Free Liberals (FDP), have distanced themselves from their policies. They stalled one of the Greens’ flagship projects: a ban of the installation of gas boilers in new houses starting next year.

Such policies are perceived as expensive and elitist by large segments of the German public. Surveys range from 50 to 80% of respondents against the gas boiler ban. The fact that Graichen had been one of the key advocates of the policy helped create a direct link between perceptions of corruption and Green Party policies. “Graichen goes…finally. Now the heating bill hammer [boiler ban] must also be taken off the table,” said the CDU’s Peter Liese.

But it’s not just centre-Right politicians who stand ready to capitalise from the loss of trust. The AfD polls in third place at the moment. Their activists have long used phrases like “linksgrün versifft” — “Left-green-dirty” — to whip up anti-establishment feeling. Corruption scandals around Green politicians and their networks confirm pre-existing anger and fan disaffection.

As it stands, the governing coalition is a long way off majority support from the public, if the surveys are accurate. Mainstream politicians would do well to remember that assuming your policies are right is no substitute for engaging with the electorate.


German police raid climate activists who blocked traffic

German police have carried out raids in seven states in a probe into climate campaigners suspected of forming or backing a criminal group because of their controversial activities.

Among those raided was Last Generation spokeswoman Carla Hinrichs, whose door was broken down by armed police while she was in bed, the group said.

For months Last Generation has disrupted traffic in German cities. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has condemned their campaign as "completely crazy".

For weeks in Germany there has been a ferocious culture war about whether Last Generation can be legally defined as a criminal organisation.

Conservative MPs have demanded tougher penalties including jail sentences, while left-wingers have warned of a dangerous authoritarian clampdown.

Some 170 police took part in Wednesday's raids on flats and other buildings in Berlin, Bavaria, Dresden, Hamburg and elsewhere, shutting down the group's website and freezing two accounts.

Ms Hinrichs's flat in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg was targeted at 07:00 on Wednesday by 25 police officers carrying guns, her colleagues said.

No arrests have been reported but seven people aged 22 to 38 are suspected of organising a campaign to collect at least €1.4m (£1.2m) in funding mainly to finance "further criminal acts". Police and prosecutors said the raids were aimed at establishing Last Generation's membership structure.

Two of the activists under investigation are suspected of trying to sabotage an oil pipeline running across the Alps from the Italian coast at Trieste to Ingolstadt last year.

In Berlin, Last Generation activists are making an impact. Roads blocked by activists have become a regular feature in radio traffic reports. Households have been getting leaflets inviting locals to Last Generation information or training events.

Last week,12 streets were blocked in the city as activists glued themselves to the road or to cars. But these street sit-ins have resulted in some drivers lashing out. Countless social media videos show outraged drivers screaming at campaigners.

In polls, most Germans disagree with the group's tactics. In a survey carried out by left-leaning magazine Der Spiegel this month, 79% of respondents said the group's actions were wrong, with only 16% agreeing with the activists.

But that doesn't mean all Germans support a clampdown either.

Many left-wing and Green politicians as well as commentators say they disagree with the group's tactics because they enrage people rather than win them over to environmentalism. But they argue activists should still have the right to campaign peacefully.

Last Generation criticised Wednesday's raids using the chancellor's "completely crazy" quote, VölligBekloppt, as a hashtag, asking when the authorities would instead search "lobby structures and confiscate government fossil funds".

Another climate action group, Ende Gelände, complained that the raids were targeting people seeking to "raise the alarm about the climate crisis rather those responsible for it".

Last Generation said it would continue its activities and some supporters online suggested the raids would galvanise support for their campaign.

The police response has been welcomed by conservatives, as well as some politicians from two ruling parties, the FDP and centre-left SPD. Some Green politicians said while they disagreed with the group's radical actions, they suggested the raids may have been too heavy-handed.

Left-wing and environmental groups announced a march in Berlin on Wednesday afternoon with further demonstrations in Leipzig, Munich and Potsdam. Greenpeace and politicians from the left-wing Linke party called the raids a "new level of escalation" from police that undermined the basic democratic right to protest.

Last Generation is campaigning for a speed limit on motorways of 100km/h (62mph).

It played a key role in protests against the expansion of an open coal mine in the village of Lützerath in January, where campaigner Greta Thunberg was briefly detained.

Last October two activists threw mashed potato at a Claude Monet painting at a museum in Potsdam near Berlin and then glued themselves to a wall, an action that mirrored similar protests in the UK by the climate action group Just Stop Oil.

Last Generation is not limited to Germany. Two activists glued themselves to an area in front of the Austrian parliament in Vienna on Wednesday, defying a ban on protests outside the building.

In Italy, three Italian activists were due in court on Wednesday for gluing themselves to a Vatican museum sculpture dating back to Roman times last August. Activists belonging to the group had also coloured the Trevi fountain in Rome black as a statement against fossil fuels.


Germany’s climate minister poised for climbdown on controversial gas boiler ban

Germany’s beleaguered climate minister had to make an embarrassing climbdown on plans to ban gas heating this week, as bad economic news cast a gloom over Berlin.

Robert Habeck, ‘super minister’ for the economy and climate, told a local newspaper that he wanted to “make his law better” as he stepped back from a hard deadline of banning all new gas heating installations at the beginning of next year.

Ever since the first details of the law emerged in March it has been picked apart by a diverse coalition of tradesmen, economists and homeowners, who claim that Germany lacks both the technical know-how and the production capacity to switch away from gas heating at the stroke of midnight on December 31st.

Mr Habeck’s ambition to install six million heat pumps, which run on electricity, by the end of the decade, is a number that critics counter with a current six-month waiting time for deliveries by one of Germany’s main manufacturers, Bosch.

"I take the criticism and social concerns very seriously," Mr Habeck told the Funke Media Group on Friday, saying he was prepared to weaken the deadline to mean that it would only apply to new houses at first.

"Given concerns about shortages of specialist tradesmen and supply bottlenecks, a little more time will also help," he conceded.

On the defensive on two fronts after a sleaze scandal was unexposed in his ministry, Mr Habeck has struggled to explain his marquee law to an unnerved public.

The bill has also exposed an ideological rift within Olaf Scholz’s centrist coalition, pitting Mr Habeck’s Greens, who want to take on billions of euros in new debt to radically drive down carbon emissions, against the small-state Free Democrats who are increasingly concerned about the country's economic competitiveness.

In the spring the Free Democrats agreed to a timeline for passing the law by the summer recess.

But, with just three weeks left until the Bundestag breaks up, they have held up the law in cabinet, claiming it needs to be "completely renovated”.




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