WWF's mistake is not just statistical, it is political.


The WWF tried to convince us this week that SUVs are not only friends of the global warming but also enemies of the modest households. Taxing vehicles according to their weight would therefore be twice as necessary: it would save tons of CO2 and it would also protect the poor living in the sparsely populated world from the irrationality of the choices they commonly make. To produce such a "result", the report produces assessments that reveal rather than methodological errors, a political mistake: despising a world that is misunderstood and treating the choices that the people who structured it made and are making as unworthy of consideration. 

The WWF took up the torch of the anti-SUV fight and weight taxation this week by trying to add a social argument to the now well-known technical argument about the increased emissions and consumption associated with heavier vehicles.  

We won't go back over the first part except to say two things, important when you place yourself in the social field.

    1/ Vehicles registered in Europe did not wait for the "SUV-isation" to become heavier; such a shift has been perceptible since we started having statistics on this subject and it was in the early 2000s that it was most noticeable. Thus, when we make the effort to look at the tables that ICCT provides us for each year of registration in Europe since 2001, it emerges that, between 2001 and 2011, the weight of the vehicles increases from 1,268 Kg to 1,392. Between 2011 and 2016 it does no longer grow and between 2016 and 2018 the crazy "SUV-isation" generates only a 5 kg increase in weight.

This increase was prompted by growing regulatory requirements that have affected road safety as much as emissions and led, to the delight of the equipment industry, to the multiplication of safety and pollution control equipment as requested by NGOs - or at least with their support. If the Renault Kwid, which weighs as much as a 1986 AX, cannot be sold in Europe in its Indian version and thus deprives modest households of access to an accessible new vehicle, it is first and foremost a perverse effect of this movement. It means that the "social" gains obtained by shifting on the manufacturers the homologation of the increasing requirements are traded off with an increasing weight and price of the vehicles, which slows down the renewal of their fleets.

    2/ As Florence Lagarde rightly reminded us on Thursday, in the product policies of the manufacturers, and particularly of the French manufacturers, before SUVs there had been minivans. Even those, being more expensive, higher and heavier, could or should have been subject to the same criticisms. More politically correct in the eyes of the environmental NGOs in France, favoured by their sympathisers, whereas SUVs remind us of America and were first proposed in Europe by Japanese, Korean and German manufacturers, they have been wiped off their cognitive map. Like the SUVs of the PSA group today, MPVs have, for years, been a good way for French manufacturers to challenge the supremacy of German manufacturers in the above-average unit value vehicle segments. They made it possible, partially and temporarily, to maintain a French assembly. Their decline is at the origin of the difficulties of the Renault site at Douai and of its employees who regret not having been awarded the Kadjar SUV. The social requirement also passes by the integration of the employment issue: the consumers whose fate is of such concern to WWF are also employees; one cannot free oneself from this reality by taking out the intellectual joker which consists in cracking down the "job blackmail".

Turning to WWF's second report, entitled with all the nuance that befits the treatment of the issue of "the overwhelming impact of SUVs on household budgets", it poses a central and rarely addressed question. It is based on the simple observation that registered vehicles have a long life. According to the work we conducted with ANFA and which Xavier Champagne reported on Autoactu on Wednesday, the statistics of the French Insurance Federation clearly show that the "laws of survival" of vehicles are changing and that the number of vehicles that we found older than 15 to 20 years is increasing.This means that one can significantly increase the fleet by registering the same number of new vehicles and/or that one can or will be able to maintain a fleet of 40 million passenger cars in circulation in the future by significantly reducing the number of new vehicles registered annually.

As a result, the average age at which vehicles are scrapped is rising, and the question we should ask is - what happens to the vehicles when they are no longer in their first 5 or 6 years of life and are no longer in the hands of their "first-time owners", but when they are in their third or fourth purchase, have left the areas where the purchasing power of households and the concentration of company headquarters and management allowed them to be purchased new and are no longer treated as maintenance and repair vehicles by the brand networks? 

These issues are fairly new for the WWF, the ministries and even the marketing of the manufacturers. They are not new for garages, technical inspectors, car professionals, body repairers or recyclers. In the same way households buy 1 million new vehicles each year but more than 5 million second-hand vehicles, the professionals in the automobile services sector certainly trade in new vehicles, but the main part of the activity and the associated employment consists in dealing with a fleet and, for this reason, they have not waited for the elites to develop their knowledge and statistics, as for them these are first and foremost business questions. Attending these professionals and the work they carry out - with the Gipa for example - to follow their activities would no doubt have enabled the WWF to avoid "reinventing the wheel" and to take a more modest and informed look at the realities they discovered in the course of this work.

Incidentally, it is surprising that the TCO calculations at the heart of the argument are at no time statistically "calibrated" either to the car consumption statistics of the national accounts or to the "family budget" surveys, which effectively make it possible to address the issues of differentiation of car costs and their distribution according to income on the one hand, and the density of the areas where households live on the other. (1) 

By proceeding in this way and by trying to provide a statistical representation of the reality that corresponds to the experience of households and professionals who treat their stock, we come to two simple conclusions, the importance of which we do not see in the 59 pages of WWF.

The first of these observations is that, when, on a low income, one is nevertheless obliged, living in a sparsely populated area, to have one or two cars and to use them, the adjustment variable is equipment: the fuel and insurance budgets per car are very similar; the maintenance-repair budgets are slightly more dissimilar, but the "acquisition" budgets for new and second-hand vehicles vary from a simple threefold depending on whether the households are in the first quintile (20% poorest) to the fifth quintile.This means that while the richest households will have a monthly budget to buy their cars of 200 euros, the poorest will not have 70 euros per month to spend on them. Despite this, the expenditure on maintenance and repair of the most modest, equipped with old vehicles acquired second-hand and held for a long time, is notoriously lower than that of the richest (270 euros compared with 400).

The second of these observations is that, thanks to the ageing of fleets and the improvement in the reliability of vehicles, historically, keeping prices constant (in euros), the cost of a car has significantly fallen over the past 30 years. According to the calculations we were able to make by relating the total automobile expenses of French households to the fleet of vehicles they actually own, this real cost has fallen by 30% and has precisely allowed the fleet to grow. This decrease is explained firstly by the drop in the "acquisition" item. It is also very sensitive in terms of fuel costs but also (to a lesser extent) in terms of maintenance and repair costs. Curiously, in WWF's "trend" scenario (Graph p.33), the TCO increases. Thus, over the past thirty years, peri-urbanisation has continued. It has been made possible by the automobile, which has become less and less expensive and has made households dependent on it and very sensitive economically and politically to variations in its user costs and, in particular, to the cost of fuel, which is the least "compressible" of automobile expenditures. For the most modest households, in sparsely populated areas where it is necessary to be multi-equipped in particular, the lifeline has come from the possibility to equip themselves with old vehicles while taking fewer risks.

WWF's work does not measure up to these realities. For example, the evaluation that is made of the acquisition cost of a second-hand vehicle assumes that the vehicles acquired are on average 7 years old, and this results in a double overestimation of their cost (p.42): the average age of the vehicles acquired is underestimated and the fact that vehicles acquired by households in the first deciles are much cheaper than others is not taken into account. It is sufficient to retrieve from the Autoways database the table for September 2020 to calculate the average age of vehicles acquired over the first 9 months: it is more like 9 years old and, obviously, higher for the most modest households in the sparsely populated world. Buying today a vehicle from 2010 whose driving regulations have been in line with the French average, means acquiring a vehicle of less than 150,000 km that can be kept for five or six years without the risk of a major breakdown. It may be a big vehicle that will consume a little more but it will convince us that better motorised, it will last a little longer and the 7 seats it will offer will be enough to convince the household that it is a "good deal".

Similarly, when it comes to calculating TCO, in the WWF tables (p.45) the maintenance-repair costs are notoriously higher on second-hand vehicles than on new vehicles. It is difficult to explain why the most constrained households, which acquire more than 80% of the old vehicles, manage to spend one and a half times less than the most comfortable households that acquire new and recently used vehicles. The opposite is obviously true, because households adjust their after-sales behaviour to their car and their budget, as all the Gipa surveys have shown for years and as all field observations tell us: when the vehicle ages, it no longer uses the same networks, the "manufacturer's revision" becomes "oil change" and then nothing at all, it is no longer fitted with the same tyres, the broken rear-view mirror is scrapped... And this is how the strategy of the manufacturers and the WWF simulations are thwarted. Households have done it for minivans, supported by their garages, recyclers and their brother-in-law who tinkers. They will do it for SUVs, whether the WWF likes it or not. Fundamentally, this truncated statistical treatment, which would like to show the poor how incapable they are of judging their own interest and how essential it is to do it for them, goes far beyond methodological errors. It is particularly blatant when the report (p.31) compares taxation to weight with the increase in the ECA. As by chance, using the approximations mentioned above, the additional cost associated with "SUV-isation" would be for the most modest households 34 euros per month, whereas the increase in the ECA would only have resulted in an additional cost of 38 euros.

 We must therefore hurry up and calculate for them and impose the tax by weight to be able to pass the ECA. Better still, the report tells us, it is worth emphasising "the enormous potential for savings on household car budgets that a policy of modal shift and modal shift would represent: the 8% increase in price induced by the 'trend' scenario would be transformed, for the same household, into a saving of up to 29% in the 'sobriety' scenario" (p.33). Knowing that the "sobriety" scenario corresponds to a "policy of reducing the number of kilometres travelled and of shifting from the car to other forms of transport" (p.32), we understand the idea: if not only SUVs were banned, but if, in addition, they were prevented from loving their villas and the extra square metres of buildings and gardens they offer, from wanting to bring up their children far from the city centres and from enjoying their barbecues, they would be better off. "My goodness! Forgive them! They don't know what they're doing."

This is probably the fundamental mistake of the WWF. It's more political than technical. It consists in denying people, and in particular the most modest among them, the right to exercise choices and to do so in a way that is consistent and capable of weighing them up and assuming them. The real automobile system is not the one of the WWF simulations because households have structured the space and their consumption practices by voting with their feet and their wallets in a sufficiently constant and consistent way - although contrary to the rationalism of the elites - for an offer making these choices liveable to be structured. Persisting in the view that they have been wrong and continue to be wrong is the fundamental political error of the WWF.  The intellectual attitude of the elites that underlies such a vision has a strong kinship with the one that once structured colonialism. We know how history ended.


(1) This analysis was developed by Y. Demoli and myself and used to assess the cost of Technical Inspection for households or the impact of "new mobilities". It is summarised here.


Bernard Jullien, University of Bordeaux

Bernard Jullien's column is also on www.autoactu.com.



La chronique de Bernard Jullien est aussi sur www.autoactu.com.

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