The EU has grand ambitions regarding climate, carbon neutrality in 2050 begins as early as 2030 (Now? Yesterday?), reflected in Fit-for-55 and RePower EU plans. 8 years from now, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are to be cut by 55% compared to 1990, which implies, for instance, that renewable energy should represent 45% of the offer and energy savings 13%.
While there is no doubt these EU ambitions can help catalyze action in other parts of the world, the difficulties to implement such a massive transformation must not be underestimated, for instance, in the domains of public support and social justice, regional disparities on the continent, maturity and diversity of scalable solutions.
It is also obvious that not all 27 Member States’ powers that be share the enthusiasm of the European Commission or the Parliament, those two much less in a face-to-face difficult dialogue with angry, inflation-burdened citizens incensed about the energy price increase of late. This may lead to a somewhat slower and unequal dissemination of the binding national regulations necessary to achieve the continent goals, creating multiple non-level playing fields for the European stakeholders in the global competition, where North America and Asia are already playing with a better hand, energy wise at least.
A simple example of the difficulties, in France. The presently in force subsidiary climate law, with quantified objectives until 2028, calls for a reduction of total energy consumption of 7.5% in 2023, this year, v. 2012. (It sure complicates data monitoring when using different reference points.) We had just reached 4.3% in 2021, when the slowdown induced by the pandemic was still felt. Oops! And such lags can be observed for many climate indicators.
And not only in France, check coal use in Germany, for instance, or the global increase in GHG emissions in 2022. Blame Yellow Vests or pandemic in the past, the war in Ukraine in the present and future, if you wish. Progress will remain arduous, even if the energy intensity in France, and on average in the EU, remains among the best in class on a global basis, which softens the poor relative performance. But one always expects the best from best pupils.
The road from directive to effective implementation is paved with potholes, roadblocks and detours. A few examples of what could be called “slow” or “quiet” regulation, to use epithets that are much used to describe the labor market or cooking:
- At EU level: The much-heralded regulation that intends to ban the sales of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV) in 2035 is to be revisited in 2026, a safeguard clause much fought about inside the European Commission, fiercely supported by the commissioner in charge of industry, and that eventually got a lot of traction. The car manufacturing industry, according to Toyota CEO, has become a sort of “silent majority” when the subject of electric vehicles (EV) is discussed, in other words claiming most manufacturers have been forced to accept the electromobility revolution while, like Toyota, still believing EV is not the panacea and many diverse solutions should be proposed for low-carbon mobility. Common sense when confronted to the diversity of markets and the timeframe to change the complete supply chain, from design to assembly lines and sales strategies. And the beginning of a peaceful rebellion against silver bullet or magic solutions, what EV is?
- Locally: Low Emission Zones (LZE), to be installed to improve the residents’ health by reducing the pollutants causing acute respiratory problems and early related fatalities, present unique opportunities for political unrest, as banning motorists driving old cars from city centers where they work, often low-pay jobs, smacks of social injustice, especially when public transport is, let us say, subpar, and low-carbon alternatives, like EV, are financially out of reach, even with heavy subsidies. Savvy (French) politicians have found an escape route, delaying the obligation to enforce a LZE if only NOx emissions are lower, on a yearly basis, than the WHO limit (lower than the EU standard). Much to the ire of eco-radicals, calling the politicians “chicken”: schoolyard fight between politicians, relief for poor motorists. Meanwhile, transport emissions are expected to increase by 4% in 2022. And the war is not over between pro and against LZEs.
- Locally, again in France: Fast-tracking renewable energy production projects. Even offshore wind generators are not always welcome. Seabirds and fish lives matter for some. Time-to-production can be long. On shore, obstruction can be even worse, NIMBY, sometimes BANANA, driven, increasing the lag behind objectives. The political response is bringing forth a fast-track regulation. Expecting a fast adoption. Which does not necessarily happen in a democracy, the Senate having, in its first review, increased the number of articles in the law from 20 to 93, the legislative review having then been further slowed down in the first review in the National Assembly, by 1974 amendments to the proposed rulemaking, of which 357 have been upheld. Two critical amendments are worth mentioning, that defeat somewhat the concept of fast-tracking projects:
- “Visual saturation” is considered a valid criterion to reject a project, like an onshore wind generator.
- In priority zones, where renewable energy production makes the most sense (lots of wind, lots of sunshine) and where projects are then likely to concentrate, the final say will rest with the mayor of the “commune” (we have 36259 of those elemental political entities in France, 54% with less than 500 inhabitants: the mayor is an elected official, every five years, NIMBY-worried electors will count in his or her decision to authorize a project, won’t it?).
No surprise then that the GHG emission trajectory is so reluctant to curve downwards, despite the over-mediatized success stories of low-carbon solutions. Action is too slow, possibly because the majority of mankind, the silent and voting one, does not really fear the consequences of climate change, thus neither sees the necessity to change its lifestyle, nor vote for reformists with a serious climate agenda. Which reinforces the absolute need for a thorough explanation, a solid education, about what we, our children and grand-children, may face in a few decades from now.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).