Peter Lavenia Explains Why Europe is Ahead of the US on Energy and Climate

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: Albany resident and Secretary of the NYS Green Party Peter Lavenia was the featured speaker at the August 14 SPB dinner. He spoke about Renewable Energy: Why the Old Country is New Again and We’re Not.  What Peter did was compare the political climates in Europe and the United States to explain why Europe is moving farther and faster ahead of the US in limiting greenhouse gas emissions and developing safe, renewable energy.

Peter, who thinks of himself as an eco-socialist, began saying that behind the American Revolution were the ideas that (1) government is to be feared and citizens must be protected from it, and (2) individuals can maximize their self-interest.  These ideas continue to exert considerable influence today.  Until the early 1900s, the US had a small central government, the US was a frontier society where people could move to a new place if they ruined — polluted — where they lived.

It took most of Europe until about 100 years ago to create democratic governments.  Generally speaking in Europe the state is not seen as an enemy to be feared, there are strong working class movements, the state is seen as being able to protect the public, and the massive devastation of two world wars and fear that World War III would be far worse led to a re-imagining of how nations can work together.

Some European nations have instituted proportional representation allowing more voices to be heard in government, unlike the US where elections involve two and often one party.  European nations have limits of campaign spending; one Euro does not equal one vote.

In the past fifty years, the European Union (EU) has also been developed allowing for national differences but also considerable multinational cooperation.  The EU has a parliament and an executive branch, the European Commission. The EU — now 28 nations — adopted a sustainability goal in 1987. 

Environmental political parties, mostly notably the Greens, began in Germany and have spread worldwide.  In the late 1990s, the German Social Democrats and Green formed a ruling coalition government, decided to phase out nuclear power and enacted a feed-in to the electric grid for solar electricity generated by individuals.

Differing campaign finance laws between the US and Europe allow for different energy policies.  Germany and France cap total campaign spending, unlike the US; in France, only individuals — humans — can make campaign donations; and in France the official election campaign lasts only two weeks.  In Germany the Greens are now winning elections — pluralities  — in individual states.  Most EU nations and Canada have public funding of elections.

GMO crops are banned in Europe  with a few exceptions: one type of Monsanto corn and one other.  The EU has established a carbon emissions scheme.  Peter said a carbon tax would be better and the US has neither.  

Peter said Europeans have less powerful oil and gas companies than the US. Germany generated 1/2 its electricity via renewables, especially solar,  in 2012  The EU decided in 2007 to use renewables  for 20 percent of its energy by 2020.  EU carbon emissions are now less than in 1990; while in the US they are up 15 percent.  Germany generates 25 percent of its energy via renewables.  Switzerland is promoting mass transit, biking, and walking while deliberately hindering vehicular traffic in urban areas. 

Peter said, “Europe shows us what we could be” when more ideas can be heard and more parties gain power.  Better policies result.  He said EU nations impose higher gasoline taxes to reduce consumption and fund mass transit.  John Wolcott jumped in saying, “We should raise gas taxes in NYS to generate revenue.”

Peter said Amsterdam (Holland) now has bicycle traffic jams.  Europe also has very old cities with very narrow streets making driving difficult.  Sylvia Bernard said, “Many people, even young people, are physically incapable of riding bikes; we need mass transit.”  Peter said in some places in Europe, towns are being designed to be auto free except emergency vehicles. 

Mark Schaeffer said the political clout of the oil industry is “the core political problem in the US.”   He said in Europe, unlike the US, “No major political party is ‘Flat Earth’” — in denial of climate change.

Peter said the United Kingdom is more like the US than the rest of Europe due oil industry’s considerable influence, and as oil prices rise, the very dirty and difficult-to-obtain resources become more economically viable.


Published in November/December 2013 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter