By: Nicholas Illuzzi
How Necessity Drove Europe’s Environmental Ideology

On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. On that date, I was enjoying a vacation in Italy, a nation with a diverse and beautiful environment. Italy is also a nation that follows the European Union’s environmental legislation and has championed efforts to reduce carbon emissions. As I saw wind turbines adorning the hills of the Tuscan countryside, I wondered how Europe has been able to prioritize and implement such extensive environmental measures when such efforts have found little traction in America. As I made my way through Florence, Rome and my family’s hometown of Giovinazzo in the southern region of Puglia, I came to notice one feature of Italy that differed greatly from America: small cars and narrow roads. Italians drive small, often hybrid, cars, along tight roads in densely populated cities. With this in mind, one could conclude that the Italian and European focus on environmentalism has its roots not solely in altruism but also in economic necessity.

Remember that Italian, and most other European, roads are ancient. The city plans of Italy were first developed by the Romans, 2,400 years before the advent of the automobile. From what I saw in the cities and towns of Italy, the roads could barely hold two Smart cars. A standard American truck would find itself caught between buildings on cobblestone pavement. Throughout the different regions of Italy, there are different reasons for these small cars. In Giovinazzo and the south, the highways are one lane and very narrow. In Rome and Florence in the north, the roads are packed with cars, and it seemed as hard to find a parking spot there as it is in Brooklyn. Most American roads, on the other hand, were built specifically for cars. Unlike Europeans, Americans do not see the need to drive small cars.

Many of these small cars are very fuel efficient. I noticed that the Toyota Prius was very popular, for example. Priuses are great for the environment, but that’s not the main reason Italians seem to love them. My cousin told me he only needs to fill his car with gas about twice a month. That’s a huge saving considering that the average Italian gas price is €1.53/L, the second highest average gas price in the EU. That average price converts to $6.51/gallon for Americans. Throughout the rest of the EU, the prices are similarly high, as you can see in this chart below.

Country Price in Euros Price in Dollars
Germany 1.14/Liter 4.85/Gallon
France 1.22/Liter 5.19/Gallon
Italy 1.53/Liter 6.51/Gallon
Sweden 1.41/Liter 5.43/Gallon

These numbers make prices that would drive Americans crazy seem small. During the great recession, gas prices in America climbed to an average of $4.11/gallon, considered crisis levels at the time. This year, American gas prices are averaging $2.34/gallon. If $4.11/gallon is a crisis, Americans would think of these EU prices as apocalyptic. Europe’s high prices are because EU nations need to import the majority of their oil. 29% of EU oil imports are from Russia, and an additional 20% of imports come from volatile nations such as Iraq and Libya. In contrast to Europe, America produces enough oil to meet 40% of its own need, 15% comes from neighboring Canada, and under 15% comes from volatile Persian Gulf states. Because America has a stable supply of oil, prices remain low and the need for fuel efficiency is not nearly as great as in Europe.

Since Europe has been forced to seek more efficient energy usage due to economic necessity, its countries have been at the forefront of environmentalism by default. In international climate and environment negotiations, European nations have been looked to as an example. However, this has created a phenomenon similar to the selection effect in human rights: Since European nations already have a strong environmental infrastructure, it becomes much easier for them to comply with new environmental treaties and regulations. For the United States, a nation with an infrastructure based on fossil fuel consumption and unrestrained car usage, it is much more difficult and much more expensive to follow these treaties. This is one of the major reasons why President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Deal. To many Americans, the economic cost these treaties is not worth compliance. While a Pew Research study showed that almost three-fourths of American adults do care about the environment, the United States will only act when it becomes economically viable or necessary.