Technological neutrality and political choices: what place do we want for hydrogen?


While politicians are often accused of overstepping their legitimate right to guide our choices in the energy transition, it can be argued that it is urgent that we make democratic choices. To guide these choices, IDDRI has produced a study on hydrogen which shows precisely that we are not suffering from hyper-politicisation of these issues but from under-politicisation: there are decisions to be made in France and in Europe in these matters and there is no reason why they should be made outside any democratic process.

With the 'whatever it takes' and quantitative easing, one could have the feeling that everything was simultaneously possible. Thus, in the face of the 'climate emergency', anything that could be seen as likely, in the more or less long term, to ensure the emergence of 'carbon neutral' solutions deserved to be financed and promoted. Moreover, in a context of very strong uncertainties about activity, demand and technological avenues, governments, eager to revive activity, have often seemed, over the past two years, to be chasing after projects to be financed rather than being overwhelmed by their abundance.

In this unusual context, public policies for the financing of major projects have not really had to arbitrate: they have not had to prove some right and others wrong. If, as Pierre Mendès-France used to teach us at university, "governing is choosing", then it could be argued that neither at national nor at European level has there been any real need to govern the evolution of our energy and transport systems in recent years. 

This may explain the curious resilience of the discourse on the 'technological neutrality' of the paths to be favoured in the decarbonisation of our automobile and goods mobility. Here, the fear of being wrong still dominates the fear of spreading energy and public funds in vain. The result - as Carlos Tavares' statements last week show - is that even when choices seem to have been made collectively, as is the case with the BEV (battery electric vehicle) in Europe and France, it is always possible - even when they seem to have been accepted - to question their relevance. 

This is the case for private players who do not know whether they will succeed within the framework that has been set for them and who, as a preventive measure, question the validity of the framework. They do so all the more willingly because, faced with them, the public authorities seem to be afraid of the audacity of their choices and ready to back down. Decades of liberalism and the transfer of its expertise to companies and think tanks have left politicians and administrations powerless when it comes to defining, conducting and defending industrial policies. This is already true at national levels. It is even truer in Brussels, where the notion of industrial policy has not yet been given a place and where the rule of unanimity in a Europe of 27 makes the Mendezian conception of government unlikely in any case.

The report published on Wednesday by IDDRI has the merit of suggesting that this neutrality makes little sense: technically as well as politically, there are choices to be made in terms of energy as well as in terms of road infrastructure or, for manufacturers of cars, LCVs, buses and coaches, in terms of GMP. Ines Bouacida and Nicolas Berghmans, the authors of the report, put it very well: depending on the hydrogen-consuming sectors for which we want to give priority, the volumes to be produced (or imported), the size of the distribution systems and the technologies to be developed are not the same. We must therefore choose and govern this transformation and not pretend to be neutral in areas where the choices made commit us for decades and where, consequently, the idea of planning (or "multi-year programming" if we want to appear more "Bayrouist" than Marxist-Leninist) has a meaning.

Stellantis, Volvo Trucks, Iveco Bus, Vinci, RTE, Total, Airbus, the steel industry: all these players need, in their respective sectors, that public choices be made to form strategies. No one can run all the hares at once and if no one can know with certainty in 2022 if the paths chosen will be the right ones and/or if those given up would not have turned out to be superior in the end, what is certain is that choices must be made and kept. The economic theory of technical change (1) teaches us that "only those technologies that are chosen are improved and those that are not remain as they are or even disappear".

The authors of the report express the same idea by indicating that in the areas of interest to the choices to be made in our hydrogen policies, there are very strong phenomena of "path dependence". This means that knowledge and skills are accumulated in the areas that are considered relevant and that it is appropriate to ask ourselves today which ones we favour and which ones we abandon. After others, they suggest that we first retain the areas where hydrogen is indispensable and is currently very "grey". They add to the list of areas where decarbonisation paths other than green hydrogen are unlikely (e.g. aviation) and suggest that we could leave it at that.

Through their work and the clarity of their proposals, they do not intend to promote a government of experts but, in accordance with IDDRI's project, to fuel the debate and enlighten our choices: "As both a research institute and a platform for dialogue, IDDRI creates the conditions for a shared diagnosis and expertise between stakeholders," reads their website. 

These systems and their changes must be governed. The market and/or lobbies cannot do the job. So these choices must be documented and made as democratically as possible. Either we claim that there is an emergency and then we must hurry up and stop being neutral. Or we can give priority to neutrality and the "plurality of solutions" and then let ourselves be blown about by the wind and the immobility of actors whose relationship with the general interest is very uncertain: informing, debating and not leaving the controversies to the experts is the minimum democratic requirement.


(1) Cohendet P. et Gaffard J.L. (1990), « Innovation et entreprises », dans Greffe X., Mairesse J. et Reiffers J.L. Ed., Encyclopédie économique, Economica, Paris, pp.935-977. 

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