On the road to 2050, transport is not the easiest sector to decarbonize, or, more precisely, de-fossilize, but it must be done without further ado. Electromobility may be one of the answers, road vehicles being by far the largest emitters in transport, but only if time-to-market is fast enough to translate from the rich man’s Tesla of today to the 21st century electric version of Henry Ford’s “car for the great multitude”. To be honest, 2050 may only see the electromobility supremacy in the most developed countries, in Northern Europe, in North America, in some advanced countries of the Far East. Should this early lead be a partial answer to the Global North Climate Debt to the South?
Still, what if the “if” above proves problematic and transport does not decarbonize fast enough, even in the above-mentioned advanced economies? What if 2019 Nobel Prize in Economy Esther Duflo’s infamous 3 I’s of Politics, Ideology, Ignorance, Inertia, conspire to slow down the much-needed low-carbon metamorphosis of transport in the 21st century?
When the car manufacturing industry balks at the fast pace to switch from ICEV to EV, when angry early adopters of EV complain about the lack of recharging points out of home, when renewable electricity production does not ramp-up as quickly as necessary, you already start hearing or reading the techno-adverse answer from some “influencers” from the global elites, the 21st century word for do-gooders: you’ve got to change your habits, stupid!
Forget Marcel Proust (yes, the one who wrote In Search of Lost Time), author of a pro-car headline in Le Figaro on November, 19th, 1907: “the most precious thing automobiles have given us back is this admirable independence that allowed the traveler to depart when he so wished and stop where he so wished” (my translation). Travelers, if you cannot afford an EV, you have to go back to either walking or cycling, restricting your voyage to the mere vicinity, or get in the queue for scheduled and point-to-point public transport, if it exists.
The slight problem for the vast majority in our Western societies is that the neo-liberalism of the last forty years has rejected the former middle-class and working-class citizens out in exurbia or in even further out rural areas, mostly because of the housing market bubble, so, regardless of the edict to change their habits in terms of transport, they must rely on individual transportation to go to work, which is mostly located in the metropolis, where the above-mentioned influencers live. They are the happy ones who can rely on public transport or afford expensive EVs.
A recent poll showed only 27% of French citizens living in rural areas estimate the public transport offer is adequate. In terms of even-harder and more painful figures, public data in France record 9 million workers, one-third of the active population, subject to so-called “constrained mobility”, the combination of high fuel costs and low revenues. 87% of French households own a car and, as less than half of the population lives in large urban areas (the metropolis) where you can find extended public transport networks, it is indeed the majority of citizens that face a potential transport dilemma, a true nightmare actually, in the next decades. Decarbonize, if you can afford it, or? Die, socially speaking, of course?
There is an alternative, several actually:
Stop considering electromobility as the only low-carbon solution for transport: To decarbonize, we have biofuels for the existing ICEV pool that can actually be mightily substituted to fossil fuels in the guise of E85 for gasoline-powered cars and HVO for diesel vehicles. And biofuels can (must? should?) be produced locally (industrial qualified jobs) and sustainably from diverse and mature technologies, happily accepting the local supply of raw bio-materials (agricultural and forestry jobs). Forget Chilean lithium or Congolese cobalt, the OPEC of materials is a non-starter for biofuels, synonymous of locality.
If globalization has been on the decline since the pandemic, the re-shoring of industrial activities has to be based on territorial decentralization, locality again, which will limit the endless flight to the metropolis, already questioned during the pandemic. If activity comes back in rural, at least less densely populated, areas, public services, in health, in education, that have slowly disappeared with the rise of mass urbanization, will be back, with positive externalities, more jobs, less need of long-distance commuting.
Frugality should never be underestimated as well: Home-working can play a role, though maybe not so much for the populations concerned with driving every day. Car-sharing also helps for those who must drive, but faces limitations, like getting together from an essentially disperse rural habitat and driving toward close enough destinations.
Combining locally produced biofuels with local activity could prove the strongest practical driver for decarbonization today, and would put less pressure on mobility constrained people to radically change their habits, allowing a much better social acceptance and giving time to adapt and wait for more radical solutions, when these get ready for mass adoption, from an availability and affordability viewpoints, or in a different behavioral context.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).