Electromobility, e-fuels, hydrogen: The future of transport, in a sustainable version, is replete with low- or zero-carbon (read fossil carbon) solutions, at least according to regulators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and in the Far East, to media and social media loud voices, a very vocal minority, to environmental NGOs, to technology developers, eyeing the mouth-watering support generously offered by regulators from taxes wrung out of the silent majority, silent both in democracies and in autocracies.
But the key question regarding this net-zero future is: Will the mass market adopt the expensive solutions, soon enough for transport to contribute to climate change mitigation or adaptation? When you are lawfully told to reduce your speed at 30 kph downtown, the non-respect may cost you a fine, a strong nudge to comply. We are dealing with social behavior. But, once you turn to the material part of life, if you already own a car with an internal combustion engine, nothing forces you to dump it for a costly alternative not using liquid fuels, gasoline or diesel. You can bet there will be last standing oil companies more than happy to supply said liquid fuels for quite some time, actually as long as a substantial market remains, in the resilient wake of a slowly receding thermal car pool.
Many recent surveys of public perception indicate steadfast skepticism that present low-carbon offers, like electromobility, are a serious solution to our climate problem. Up to 60% of poll respondents in France or in Austria, possibly many more in some “red” U.S. states. Blame is not necessarily put on the environmental quality, rather on more practical aspects, such as electric vehicle (EV) purchase price, lack of recharge infrastructure and the indications that the price of electricity is on the rise (recent negotiations regarding the price of nuclear electricity in France, supplied by the only producer, EDF, ended in a whopping increase from 42 to 70 Euro cent per kWh).
Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel prize in literature, wrote, in “The Years”, that, in the 1950es, we were living, in France, “in the scarcity of everything.” In this beginning of the 21st century, we rather live in the abundance of everything, car included: a symbol of freedom, of the emergence of the middle class during the second half of the 20th century, but also a necessity for so many workers who now live away from the cities and have to commute every day. Marketers are keen to have us replace everything we have, car included. Inflation concern, amongst other worries, may deter us to do so, though. And more so in the future if the massive cost of the energy transition, which means a complete change of our fossil energy-based civilization, is passed on to taxpayers.
We should also reflect on the following considerations, dealing with acceptability and affordability, as their social and societal, if not psychological, nature is part of the energy transition, which cannot be technology-driven only:
Which brings another consideration, the age of the purchasers of new cars, close to 60 (younger generations plebiscite the second-hand market). Seniors are not known to be, on average, fast adopters of breakthrough technologies. In other words, they are rather conservative. Amongst others, those who can afford a brand-new car love SUVs, offering room for grandchildren seating and golf equipment, and they are likely to be more “range anxious”, recharging ability being a notorious drawback of EVs today.
Directionally, as transport is responsible for one quarter of CO2 emissions, mobility has to get away from fossil fuels. Transport energy has to be de-fossilized, in order to play its due part in the climate change mitigation. Electromobility looks like a proper answer, in the future, should we then have generated enough low-carbon and affordable electricity. But the climate change challenge also forces us to face a different equation than in the last two centuries, where new, emerging, energies on the offer side, coal after biomass, oil after coal, natural gas after oil, were relentlessly piling up on each other, in an additional mode, ever fueling more growth.
Now, to reduce CO2 emissions, we face a substitution mode. Fossil energy has to go, at least strongly recede, and be replaced by renewable, low-carbon energy. This new equation implies we must also deal with demand, not only offer, to be able to deal with the size of the challenge. And it is much more difficult to change demand, when present, social, societal or psychological, patterns do not fit well with future specifications, as described in the three considerations above.
The likely consequence of this dilemma is that the mobility transition could take much more time than climate models show we have, in theory. If time is not on our side, we should then pay more attention to interim solutions, like biomass-based or green electricity-based low-carbon fuels, respectively readily or nearly-readily available to de-fossilize transport, and support proper incentivizing regulations favoring these solutions for the transition period, that is until 21st century low-carbon offer and demand meet.
And, by the way, as many of our old (thermal) vehicles end-up, after a series of second-hand ownership, in less advanced countries, Africa, Latin America or the Middle-East, the switch to electromobility should not displace CO2 emissions from the West to the Global South. Biofuel can be a solution, as countries in the South can produce advantaged feedstocks, with economic and social benefits along the biofuel supply chain. Experts tell us the less advanced countries, in their evolution towards improved well-being, do not have to make the same mistakes as the West did during the last century, and may directly step into 21st century low-carbon technologies. This may be true for electricity generation or telephone, where infrastructure building is key, it may not be true for mobility, where affordability comes first, and imported second-hand thermal cars are a cheaper option than electric vehicles.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).