Transition, Not Revolution

03.02.23 | Blog | By:

Away from the sensationalism of the media, reporting about eco-radical actions, in museums or against head offices of global and carbon-heavy corporations, or about miracle solutions, advocated by entrepreneurs eager to capture public or venture capitalist funding, some serious thinking is taking place to assess the pace of the energy transition that will eventually take place during the course of this 21st century.

It seems the absolute urgency to deal with the consequences of climate change, as advocated for in the IPCC reports, by the UN secretary-general or by the European Commission and Parliament in their Green Deal to achieve Net-Zero Emissions in 2050, is facing headwinds from the so-called civil society, when this concept is encompassing the majority of citizens, not just the vocal minority.

It takes a war in Ukraine or a pandemic to discover that basic needs we took for granted in the West, like energy reliability, affordability, and supply security, can get back to first position on anyone’s agenda, and on government’s agenda, the latter fishing up amazing sums of money, of a magnitude we thought was not available, to bring relief to individuals and companies alike and prevent energy bankruptcy, the former finding amazing ways and means to reduce consumption. This relief can be indirect or direct:

  • Indirect: In the postponement of the most extreme measures. In the second metropolis in France, Lyon, the implementation of Low-Emission Zones, de facto banning diesel cars from the city roads and streets has been delayed by two years in the face of the social injustice created in the least affluent suburbs, where replacing an old diesel vehicle is well-nigh impossible.
  • Direct: Obviously mostly fossil-based, as fossil energies are the lifeblood of our world today, have been since the start of the industrial revolution, fueling an economic growth up to 3 % every year in the recent decades that not only did not exist in the 300,000 years of Homo Sapiens, but cannot keep on at this rate in the context of our planet limits.

But this growth is still stubbornly sought after, in emerging economies as a way to catch up on the West and improve the well-being of the population, in advanced economies to feed our hedonism-based lifestyle. When will the day of reckoning occur is anyone’s guess. A climate stampede may bring it forward, a low-carbon technology swift emergence may delay it, the global system is too complex and we have no-one at the helm.

At the top, governments or global corporations, the path forward to a low-carbon economy is not so clear, practically, at least. NGOs rail against corporate low-carbon strategies, spotting “greenwashing”. Climate activists take governments to court against climate inaction. In other words, the transition is not quick enough. But can it be otherwise?

Besides the traditional criticism of the democratic snail pace to reach consensus or take difficult decisions, it may also be useful to reflect on decisions made at citizen level.

Let us consider this most mundane behavior, the selection of the next car, a very individual, individualistic, decision, made 79 million times in 2022, one third of those in “autocratic” China, one third in “democratic” U.S. and EU. A good number of these buyers have indicated in numerous polls and surveys that they see climate change as a major, if not existential, threat to their future. Still, in a Deloitte survey of 26,000 consumers in 24 countries conducted in the fall of 2022 as part of their Global Automotive Survey for 2023, the following graph is showing an interesting departure from this worry.

Source: Deloitte 2023 Global Automotive Consumer Study

At first sight, electromobility is getting traction, which is good news. But a solid majority still exists to support internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV), including in regions, like the EU, represented here by its largest Member State, Germany, where the support in favor of electromobility has been and is strong:

  • By the powers that be, planning to ban ICEV from sales in 2035, dishing out huge subsidies to purchase electric vehicles (EV, or BEV in the graph), spending big time on recharging infrastructure build-up.
  • By car manufacturers, with much mediatized, multi-billion Euros, announces of re-industrialization of assembly plants to churn out EV in place of ICEV and of construction of battery manufacturing plants.

Not to forget, by the medias and the vocal “moral” minority, harping on lower total cost of operation (when electricity was cheap), benefits for air quality (real), lower CO2 emissions (not true in any country: Polish electricity comes from coal at 80%).

Even hybrids are popular, and not only in Toyota home turf, Japan.

Deloitte is rightly asking whether the market pick-up by EV is fast enough. To go further: The energy transition will take time. Net-Zero Emissions may well be out of reach in 2050, and politicians should not build decarbonization strategies only on miracle solutions, like all-out electricity and hydrogen. They should also support transitory responses like gas, nuclear, biofuels, bioenergy at large, to partially decarbonize the existing tools, cars, planes, ships, heating and cooling in the decades to come when these will still be around gracefully and gradually giving way to more climate-efficient ones.

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

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