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Electromobility: Not Yet, but Coming…

11.22.21 | Blog | By:

The UK Prime Minister had short-listed “cars” on his four-point priority agenda for COP 26 he hosted in Glasgow in November. As car manufacturing in the UK is mostly a legend today, with the likes of Aston-Martin, Rolls-Royce, MG, and other Bentley, either under foreign ownership or gone forever or reserved for the ultra-rich and famous, no doubt this agenda had electromobility in mind, in line with the UK Government ambitious plan for electric vehicles (EV) to roam the British roads on a large scale as early as 2030.

Alas, contrary to politicians, industry leaders tend to be a bit more realistic in their strategy, meaning they weigh the hard facts against the wishful thinking, which can also be the utopia. Sure, if the plan is for road transport to emit zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050, internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) have to disappear from the showrooms a few years before, on average fifteen, to give time to turn over the car pool and make room for EVs only. But the big carmakers, American, European or Asian in terms of brands, while global today, also have to deal with market diversity, in terms of geography, urban density, motorists’ purchasing power and taste (fads?), environmental constraints, regulations, while their business organization mostly calls for global models, produced in large assembly plants, concentrated where labor costs are low. Diversity v. scale, never an easy equation to solve.

No surprise then that carmakers, facing the COP 26 firing squad’s over-simplified declarative in five words, “no more ICEV in 2035 (or 2040)”, looked for the devil in the details, with the end result that only six car manufacturers, representing 20% in volume terms, and only thirty-two countries, the most meaningful, car manufacturing-wise, being the UK, India, Mexico, Turkey and Sweden, signed, on November 10, Transport Day at COP 26, for such a brutal pledge for the advent of zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), albeit with prudent caveats, such as “will make best efforts to stop selling ICEVs by 2035 on major markets, latest by 2040”, “main markets”.  Note the absence of the top manufacturers, VW and Toyota to name the largest ones, and of the USA, China, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the big nations in the automobile sector, either in production or consumption.

So, what prevented these heavyweights to sign? The list of excuses, or explanations depending on how you feel about such an absence, is long:

  • Most car manufacturers, technology-driven, do not want to limit their future to ZEV only, relying on 100% electricity or hydrogen, as this could only limit innovation and competition. What about the contribution of biofuels and synthetic fuels, that apply to carbon footprint reduction the more representative well-to-wheel lifecycle analysis approach, rather than the restrictive tank-to-wheel approach of zero emission? What about hybrid vehicles, (bio)gas-powered vehicles? The future of climate-friendly energy is in diversity, not in single solutions. This is repeated ad nauseam these days by all experts, isn’t it?
  • Especially as the full change-over to ZEV will take several decades, while regulations severity increases in real time and transition solutions, the list above, are the only adaptative tools to remain in the competition against the newcomers, EV pure players like Tesla, for instance.
  • The EU Commission claimed its ambitious “Fit-for-55” package, calling for a ban on ICEV sales in 2035 on the continent, had still to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Member States.
  • France, while supporting the 2035 deadline for ICEV sales ban, claimed negotiations were under way in the EU on the role that hybrid vehicles could play in the transition to zero emissions. And insisted on the social justice aspects of this transition, arguing not everyone is able to switch to a ZEV if not enough time is available: end-of-the-month consideration matters, in a democracy.
  • VW and Toyota rightfully argued that ZEV makes sense only where electricity is fully renewable, calling for differentiated pathways to ZEV adjusting to electricity greening pathway. A hint that decarbonization of electricity production may take longer than expected, or that some regions, the less developed ones, no doubt, will need a longer time to be fully compliant on this score? No surprise here, as well, as the financing of the energy transition in the less developed countries was a sticking point at the COP 26.

Environmental NGOs complained at this lack of commitment, while recognizing it is a step in the right direction. And there is always a silver lining in every cloud: thirty-nine large cities signed the declaration, and so did thirty-eight large fleet operators, like car rental, lease plan companies and Uber. As usual, such a transition cannot only come from the top, the regulators, some bottoms-up approach matters as well. The transition to zero-emission on the roads will happen, and we should trust the diversity of stakeholders in this complex sector to each play a role in this project, as a committed team, not as cattle driven to the slaughterhouse.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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