Is the Land that Gave us Combustion-Engine Cars About to Be the Death of Them?

Will this EU power be the first to prove that a modern, industrialized nation can make major shifts towards cleaner, greener energy without catastrophe?


New legislation may be the death of the internal combustion engine in Germany, and perhaps Europe at large. A bipartisan resolution was passed by the Bundesrat, one of the two highest legislative bodies in Germany, calling for a ban on the use of internal combustion engines on roads by 2030 to be passed in Brussels, which would affect all of the European Union.

The gravity of the resolution is made greater when the fact that German regulations are often the model for EU regulations is taken into account. That this resolution was passed by the nation with the largest automotive manufacturers in Europe and the home of the Autobahn is no less considerable.

One of the legislators who voted for the bill, Oliver Krischer, a member of the German Green Party, was quoted as saying; If the Paris agreement to curb climate-warming emissions is to be taken seriously, no new combustion engine cars should be allowed on roads after 2030” in endorsement of the resolution. He references the recent Paris Agreement which seeks to curtail greenhouse gas pollution in signatory nations, which require Germany to make substantial reductions in its pollution output.

What might happen if Europe does phase out internal combustion? Luckily there is a similar case to compare it to, with a similar time frame and scope.

Several years ago, the Germans passed legislation calling for a phase-out of nuclear power; citing environmental and security concerns. The ambitious phase-out seeks to shut down all Germany’s nuclear plants by no later than 2022. Nuclear power usage has declined from being the source of a third of all electricity production to less than a fifth in 2014. The plan is currently on track to be completed on schedule. 

The nuclear phase-out has been the catalyst for a series of initiatives to promote renewable power in Germany. While there were concerns about the consequences of a reduction in electricity production at the beginning, the transition has gone on without major issues. This has been made possible by aggressive policies to improve energy efficiency, strong regulations to encourage renewables, and large investments in clean energy. Plans to reach 35% renewable energy production nationally by 2020 are deemed achievable.

The phase-out seems to show that a modern, industrialized nation can make major shifts towards cleaner, greener energy without catastrophe. It can even be done quickly if the planning is done well enough.

So, is the land that gave us the modern internal combustion engine going to be the death of it? That remains uncertain, as the resolution has no legal force at this time. The German Transport Minister has reiterated the lack of legal power behind the resolution and declared the whole thing to be “utter nonsense”. There is also the problem of how clean the non-petrol powered cars would be, if the energy used to power them isn’t clean they can’t be either.  

At the very least, a mere attempt to do something this far-reaching is likely to have tremendous effects on the state of alternative technologies for powering cars. If anybody can engineer a better, cleaner automobile, it would be the Germans.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.