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Are Electric SUVs Bad News for Climate Change Adaptation?

09.15.22 | Blog | By:

Ford Motor Co just announced for 2024 the electric version of the largest SUV on its catalog, the Wagoneer S, for Superlatives? 600 is the magic figure, horsepower for the engine, kilometer for the autonomy, a real dragster for acceleration, 3.5 secs to reach 100 kilometer per hour. And a real family car, for rich Americans, at least.

The nagging question is why do you need so much power to transport your family, on longer distances than the daily home-to-work on roads with speed limitations? Freedom of choice would be the standard answer, pre-pandemic, pre-climate change, pre-war in Ukraine (for Europeans only, so far), but, in the post-2022 world, one also wonders why so many minerals will have to be mined to manufacture the huge battery that will move the several tons of steel, aluminum and plastic, and possibly truly renewable materials, quite fashionable these days on top of the range models, to ensure instant power and range, why so much electricity will have to be generated from renewable sources to be stored in this huge battery.

Both resources are expected to be in large demand and even potentially scarce in the future, so, wouldn’t it make sense to first serve priority markets, small urban electric cars and vans, to make city centers less polluted, in noise and harmful substances for the health of those who live and work in large urban centers?

Another standard answer normally comes to mind, insignificant impact. This expensive car will likely not be hugely popular, then its contribution to resource grab will be small, as its contribution to emission and pollution reduction, by the way. True, but it seems this argument is less and less convincing for a school of thought, in rapid expansion, that believes a more frugal approach in our way of life, to avoid using too many planets when we have only one at our beck and call, is everybody’s affair.

The rising inequalities in the last decades have been with us before, in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, but there was room then to reduce them with time by making the poor better off, through progress or social policies. It seems we do not have that room to maneuver any more, thanks to our over-exploitation of the planetary resources. If this is the case, if everybody is concerned in adopting a more frugal way of life, then the least affluent, de facto frugal, claim they cannot do much, effort-sharing becomes essential and extreme behavior by the minority unacceptable, or an excuse for the majority to refuse required efforts, if elites do not lead by the example. Politics and sociology are not always pulling in the same direction.

And, coming back to the usefulness of such a mammoth on wheels, you can already hear the populist critics stating that the wealthy elites do not want to abandon their luxury habits and thus cynically ask for more socially acceptable and environmental-friendly powertrains, like electrified SUVs, to maintain their consumerist way of life. Which can only play in the hands of car manufacturers, that have changed their business model, in the West at least, favoring margin rather than volume: and margin is expected big time at the top of the range, not at the competitive bottom. Frugality and consumerism cannot not rhyme together: in the context of the second, the first one would then become synonymous of shortages and deprivations

There has always been Ferraris and Teslas, even centuries ago when gilded coaches of nobility shoved aside the “people”, bourgeois or beggar alike: still, the present state of the planet pleads for some sense to be applied to what we used to call progress. In a time of war, critical resources are under strict supervision, isn’t it time we realize we are in some kind of war, against scarcity? EVs, yes, but not for every usage, priority to urban use, and biofuels to decarbonize the rest, long distances, be it for light or heavy vehicles, as much as for aviation and shipping.

To end up on a literary note, Leo Tolstoy wrote a premonitory warning in “War and Peace”, quite pertinent to our present situation, stating that humans, in front of an imminent peril, face an internal conflict, between their reason, advising to analyze and find solutions to deal with this threat, and a more fatalistic behavior, focusing on the good life for now and just waiting peacefully and thoughtlessly for bad things to materialize, end-result of the conflict being to call for the first approach in public and apply the second one in private. Strong words and equally strong behavior, but not identical.

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

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