European Shades of Green

“Oh, and one more thing,” said Sebastian Paauw, organizer of a recent trip I took to the Netherlands, “we're not going to rent you a car, but we'll give you a bike.”

True to his word, he promptly provided me with a bicycle. And while the cheese, wine, and charmingly narrow streets and alleyways made me feel pretty European, my new, cosmopolitan identity didn't quite click till I was gliding about on my sloping, bright-red three-speed.

But I'm a Californian, and a southern Californian at that. So I'm plenty used to lands where automobile intertwines with identity. When the British architectural critic Reyner Banham decided to interpret Los Angeles, he learned to drive, judging it impossible to understand the city without a stick shift. Attempting to experience Europe from within a Hummer would be like Banham exploring LA as a pedestrian: it wouldn't work, and would earn scorn from the natives to boot.

That's largely because, for a variety of reasons, Europe has long been more serious about its environmentalism than the United States. Much belligerent unilateralism has been ascribed to George W. Bush's rejection of the Kyoto climate change protocols, but less discussed is the impetus for Europe's wholehearted embrace. It springs, at least in part, from the knowledge that global warming will devastate that continent first and worst. Scientists predict that by 2080, Europe will no longer have winters, their storied, stately alpines will melt, and over in the Netherlands, Sebastian Paauw's kids won't be handing out any more bikes; they'll be too busy offering scuba gear to adventurous explorers eager to dive through the remains of a charming European country that went the way of Atlantis.

But Europe has no intention of going gently into that good -- if ahistorically warm -- night. According to German environmental minister Jürgen Tritten, his countrymen have made a tradition of screening the 1958 Oscar-winning Western The Big Country during holidays. The film stars Gregory Peck, playing a retired ship captain who moves west to marry his sweetheart and ends up accidentally embroiled in a conflict over water rights. Not to give it away, but Peck, playing the anti-cowboy, ends up wresting control of the river from rival ranchers and demanding that the locals respect the resource and cease ravaging the commons. If only it were so easy in real life, Tritten seemed to imply. Sadly, it turns out that it's much easier to mediate in a big country, or even a big continent, than a whole world.

America, the world's largest producer of carbon gases, has evinced nothing but hostility to curbing emissions, and with no nation-state version of Gregory Peck on the horizon to demand temperance, the Europeans have had to lead by example. And so they have.

Tritten's Germany, for one, has sprinted into the lead on climate change, implementing an array of programs to increase the usage of renewable energy resources. Currently, use of solar, wind, geothermal and tidal power and biomass cuts CO2 production by 50 million tons. The German government has mandated that, by 2020, these and other alternative sources of energy make up 20 percent of the country's electricity needs and, by 2050, 50 percent of total energy consumption. These ambitious goals have opened up new markets for German corporations. Estimates have photovoltaic (solar) cells comprising a $100 billion market by 2020. Japan has long led this field, with the United States in second place. No longer. Germany has firmly supplanted us, boasting 140 installed megawatts versus our mere 70. And that understates American slippage in the market. California, land of sunshine, plays host to the world's largest solar plant, which the German Environment Ministry financed to the tune of six million euros. Based on the experience accrued during that project, it will be a German company, Solar Millenium, that will construct the first commercial power plant to produce “parabolic-trough” solar energy, which uses sophisticated mirror systems that concentrate the sun's radiation, in Granada, Spain. But hey -- who wants to be on the cutting edge of tomorrow's technologies?

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Oh, right, Iceland. Because over there, they're tired of their best known export being Björk and have resolved to attain an early lead on hydrogen technologies and, for that matter, make their entire country oil free by 2050. To be fair, Iceland is in a unique energy situation, sitting as it does atop a limitless amount of geothermal power provided by a hyperconcentration of volcanoes that boil the country's underground springs and baths, generating heat that can then be harnessed for electricity.

That natural advantage, however, has spurred the island nation to reconceptualize its economy as the perfect testing ground for hydrogen, a clean, efficient, and renewable source of energy. And with the highest per capita car ownership rate in the world -- and no domestic fuel industry to offer competition -- Icelanders have adopted the project wholeheartedly. Their bus fleet already runs on the stuff; the buses emit a ghostly trail of water vapors that, during cold weather, occasionally scares visitors into thinking the buses are burning. When the fuel tank depletes, the buses drive into the world's first commercial hydrogen station, developed with Shell and officially opened in April 2003. Along for the ride have been all manner of multinationals, from interested organizations like the European Union to desirous multinationals like DaimlerChrysler.

But while Iceland works to routinize the hydrogen economy and eventually render it economically competitive enough for export, the rest of Europe is taking a decidedly less dramatic approach to curbing carbon emissions. Wind power has, ahem, swept the continent, particularly Denmark, where travelers arriving by boat float past 20 massive turbines, calmly spinning their 100-foot blades about two miles off the coast while powering 32,000 homes on the mainland. Like solar power, wind power is another industry Americans seemed poised to dominate. Indeed, the Danish producers cut their teeth on an order for 10,000 turbines from California in the early 1980s. But the tax credits and government subsidies driving the Californian expansion lapsed, and so did the Golden State's interest.

The Danes, meanwhile, parlayed their turbine production into the country's largest export industry, dominating the rapidly expanding market for wind-power technologies. Wind power accounts for nearly 13 percent of Denmark's current energy usage, and is expected to account for fully 50 percent by 2030. Denmark is particularly well-suited to wind, and its success is only partially replicable across the European Union and the world. So what of all the other European countries not gusted by or placed on top of limitless energy sources?

On January 1, 2005, the European Union's carbon trading program went live. Power plants and farms that account for about half the EU's CO2 emissions and that are scattered across the continent have been given carbon emission allowances -- limits that they must meet. If they're able to institute efficiencies and come in under their caps, they can sell the remaining credits to organizations and industries having more trouble living within their CO2 means. Currently, energy use that exceeds 20 megawatts an hour triggers automatic enrollment in the system, and the carbon caps, negotiated by home governments, are fairly relaxed. Both ends are expected to tighten as the system ramps up and comes in for review and revision in 2008. Early signs, however, are promising. The BBC reports that by November 2005, over 200 million metric tons of carbon had been traded.

And for Europe, that may be the future: taking the individual commitments of its leading member-states and forcing them on the developing economies eager to enter the European Union's embrace. In May of 2004, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia all joined the European Union. One precondition for their entry: to accept the acquis communautaire, the body of ratified EU laws. Among these laws are a score of relatively strict environmental protection standards covering everything from climate change to waste management. This has triggered an investment boom of sorts. For Poland alone, complying with the wastewater and management regulations will cost 60 billion euros.

And so, interestingly, the European Union itself has assumed Gregory Peck's Hollywood role, at least in Europe. But roping in a bunch of small-time ranches while an agribusiness conglomerate digs in upstream is of questionable value. In the end, Europe can lead its horses to water and teach them how to drink moderately. When it comes to the challenge of global climate change, however, that's of limited utility unless they can make America do it, too.