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:
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).