Pope receives electric car, as studies for an all-renewables Vatican underway

Pope Francis and Jochen Wermuth discuss the workings of the pope's new Nissan Leaf electric car during a tour around the Vatican Dec. 17, 2016. Wermuth presented the car as an 80th birthday present to the pope. (Provided photo/Wermuth Asset Management)

El Papa's got a brand new car. And it's electric.

In December, Pope Francis received a Nissan Leaf electric car as a birthday present from Jochen Wermuth of Wermuth Asset Management, a German investment firm focused on sustainability. The gift was made public in late February.

Later this year, the firm itself plans to make an additional 10 electric vehicles accessible for a three-month period as part of a Vatican electricity mobility pilot project.

In addition, Wermuth Asset Management has pledged to prepare for the pope four studies that aim to make the Holy See one of the first nation-states in the world to be completely emissions-free and run entirely on renewable energy. Specifically, the studies will examine how the Vatican can:

  • run on 100-percent renewable power;
  • move to 100-percent emissions-free mobility;
  • use electric vehicle batteries for power storage;
  • align its capital with the goals of Francis' encyclical on the environment and human ecology "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."

Taken together, the studies hope to show that such sustainable steps are not just good for the environment but can be done by any group today in a way that's ultimately profitable, said Wermuth, the firm's chief investment officer, in a press release.

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As for Francis' new ride, he said that the pope using an all-electric car "is great news for the world" and sets an example for other heads of state, and all people, to follow.

"Today it is no longer just morally right, it is also cheaper to own an electric car compared to a combustion engine car," Wermuth said. "The Pope is moving from sharing his views on the world via his encyclical Laudato Si' … to implementing the Laudato Si'."

In his June 2015 encyclical, Francis said, "There is an urgent need to de­velop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for exam­ple, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy."

The pope later in the document stressed "the use of high polluting fossil fuels … needs to be progressively replaced without delay," but also recognized that there currently is minimal access in the world to clean and renewable energy. While some countries have made progress, Francis said, "There is still a need to develop adequate storage technologies" for renewable energy more widely.

"Investments have also been made," he noted, "in means of production and transportation which consume less energy and require fewer raw materials, as well as in methods of construction and renovating buildings which improve their energy efficiency. But these good practices are still far from widespread."

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Pope Francis smiles at Cardinal Peter Turkson, left, as he descends from his first trip around the Vatican in his new Nissan Leaf electric car. (Provided photo/Wermuth Asset Management)

A global effort, Francis said, is essential to addressing environmental and social problems. "Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan," he wrote in the encyclical.

The pope reiterated that message ahead of the two United Nations climate summits that followed the encyclical's release.

Before COP 21 — which resulted in the Paris Agreement among 195 nations to hold average global temperature rise between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius — Francis said at a U.N. office in Nairobi that the meeting must develop a new global energy system based on minimal fossil fuel use, energy efficiency and "use of energy sources with little or no carbon content."

Ahead of COP22, he stressed that individual or national action "is not enough" to address a complex issue like climate change, but, quoting Laudato Si', "instead it is necessary to implement a responsible collective response truly intended to 'work together in building our common home.'"

At COP22, held in November in Marrakech, Morocco, the Climate Vulnerable Forum — consisting of 48 developing countries most vulnerable to climate change — pledged to meet 100-percent domestic renewable production "as rapidly as possible," and by no later than 2050. Along with Germany and Mexico, the United States also submitted a long-term low-emissions strategy that sought to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That plan, introduced under former President Barack Obama, was viewed as "somewhat wishful" at the time, and now is unlikely to be acted upon by the Trump administration, which has promised to increase fossil fuel production and cut environmental regulations.

Francis is not the first pope to drive electric. In 2012, French carmaker Renault donated two electric vehicles to Pope Benedict XVI, himself nicknamed the "green pope" for his own writings on ecology and creation care, as well as overseeing the installation of a solar array atop the Paul VI audience hall and plans for $660 million solar power plant. In 2011, an auto contest sought designs for an "eco-friendly" popemobile.

Before the Nissan Leaf, Francis was driven around Rome in a compact Ford Focus, which he swapped in lieu of a Mercedes limo. During his U.S. visit in September 2015, he was ushered around in a tiny Fiat 500L. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Francis was first offered a Tesla Model S but declined, opting for the more modest Leaf.

"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world," Francis told a group of young priests in July 2013, adding "It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car."

A goal of the Wermuth EV pilot project is to show that electric mobility can be both good for the environment as well as profitable for the Vatican or any community when compared to combustion-engine cars.

During a conference in January on Laudato Si', Catholic investing and clean energy, Wermuth argued that electric vehicles have reached a level where they're economical alternatives to combustion-engine cars, which he linked to a bevy of health conditions, beyond climate change, that are exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels: among them, cancer, asthma and allergies.

"It is economic nonsense today, when a Nissan Leaf costs Euro 20,000 and consumes only one-third the energy," he said of combustion-engine vehicles.

Wermuth, who is Protestant, added later in an interview with NCR at the conference that "A green industrial revolution is under way because renewable power and electric cars are now competitive.

"This means that the goals of Laudato Si' can now be profitably implemented while serving the poor. Anyone staying invested in fossil fuels risks losing its capital in addition to causing cancer and climate change," he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe. Marie Venner contributed to this report.]

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