The conditions for a real debate on electrification

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A major report on the issue of European automotive electrification, published online in early December, sheds new light on the matter. It shows that it is probably the mistakes made in the past that have given electrification the status it now has as the only feasible solution. It also shows that the dead ends of the past will resurface. The debate opened up at that time may lead either to questioning the Brussels choice or to seeking to reorient the conditions for its implementation.

It is not wrong to say that, as Le Point said on Friday 16 December, a form of 'self-censorship' on the part of Europe is currently weighing on the debates concerning electrification. 
It is undeniably desirable, even essential, to get out of this self-censorship in 2023 as the irremediable effects of the decisions confirmed in 2022 to move away from fossil fuels accelerate and as each European country seeks in this context to jointly manage the decline of the old sector and the rise of the new.

Indeed, this dual dynamic of disinvestment (or "asset decommissioning") and investment in new skills and new installations requires, in order to be conducted effectively by both private and public players, that we no longer rely on preconceived ideas and/or petitions of principle, but that we know at what pace and in what form we intend to carry out this transition.

When we ask ourselves why this self-censorship is observed and what would allow us to get out of it, we are very quickly confronted with a question that is, as logic specialists would say, 'undecidable' and which is as follows: is the examination of the question still upstream of the question of electrification or should it be situated downstream of it in 2023?

Indeed, in Le Point, J. Chevalier, the author of the article, discusses a report submitted by Tommaso Pardi, director of Gerpisa (1), an international research network on the automotive industry, to the ETUI (European Trade Union Institute acting as an independent research centre for the European Trade Union Confederation - ETUC).

The report, entitled "Heavier, faster and less affordable cars - The consequences of EU car emission regulations", has been posted on the sponsor's website. Although the report expresses doubts about the possibility of organising a "just transition" with such short deadlines, it is rather downstream from the decision.

J. Chevalier reads this report as an "indictment" and retains the arguments that would demonstrate that the obligation to electrify would be an aberration that should be reversed in a hurry. He is clearly upstream, i.e. in the camp of those who continue to be convinced that European officials and parliamentarians have, on ideological grounds, decided to make us switch to electric power in the same way as they decided to stop nuclear power: in complete ignorance of the facts, in disregard of the interests of employees, industrial companies and our sovereignty, and for the benefit of countries whose industrial and geopolitical interests are fundamentally divergent from our own...

In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the re-examination of energy and nuclear issues and their European and national management over the last few years, this questioning of the automobile seems to echo the rather terrible observations made by several senior executives in the sector during their hearings at the National Assembly by the "parliamentary commission of enquiry aimed at establishing the reasons for the loss of sovereignty and energy independence of France".

Without going into the details of the case and returning to the obvious disaster that the mechanism of regulated access to historical nuclear electricity (Arenh) set up within the framework of the European electricity market has been for the country, we will retain the fascinating testimony of Yves Bréchet, former High Commissioner for Atomic Energy and member of the Academy of Sciences, on 29 November.
He points out, among other things, "the role of the 'technical advisers' in the ministerial cabinets" in these choice terms: 

"Whatever the prestige of their degree, they find themselves advising a minister who does not even ask the question on subjects that they generally do not master. Their first concern will too often be to tell their minister only what he or she wants to hear so as not to damage their future careers. It is hardly surprising that the said advisers have only limited enthusiasm for convening an atomic energy committee which would soon expose their shortcomings."

He thus describes a schizophrenic political logic in which people are so convinced that the technical arguments of competent people are biased that they prefer not to hear them so as not to have to produce the work necessary to assess and, if necessary, challenge them. Y. Bréchet thus describes how he surprised an ADEME official responsible for drawing up the transition scenarios, whom he had asked to discuss the work he was coordinating, by refusing to be satisfied with the "power point" that he was used to giving to ministers and their technical advisers, imposing on him a page-by-page reading of the report and subjecting him to the hundreds of questions that the document raised.

The criticism of the technical and industrial inculturation of decision-makers and the need to transform the ideological war of positions into real techno-economic debates is indeed a powerful one, and the automotive case is just as concerned by the problem as that of energy policies.

In the automotive sector, it has long been considered that industrialists were in a better position than anyone else to say what was technically and economically possible to do in various fields, and in particular in terms of reducing emissions.

Under this assumption, regulators or public decision-makers listened to each other and did not necessarily agree and eventually had to make trade-offs. When there was consensus, then the common truth was accepted. In Europe at least, as T. Pardi points out very well, this way of seeing things and this way of thinking is not always the same. Pardi, this way of looking at and regulating the industry has, as we have often said, produced a rather German trajectory, but one that is very little contested by the French and Italians, which has led to a massive de-differentiation, to a move upmarket embodied by a heavier, more expensive product and growing market share for premiums. 

This trajectory was basically consensual, even if it was highly questionable.

Until 2015, it seemed to allow the EU to remain committed to a satisfactory CO2 emissions reduction trajectory, and the doubts expressed by certain NGOs criticising the NEDC cycle about the reality of this reduction and, above all, about the realism of the measures on NOx and PM, were hardly heard by the 'technical advisers'.

Volkswagengate exploded this political process and it is as if, without going into the technical issues, the same advisors had decided that nothing that the manufacturers - or employees and employee unions - closely or remotely linked to the old credo could be heard.

It was this censorship that imposed self-censorship on the industry players and allowed the unchallenged victory between 2018 and 2020 of the NGOs convinced of the relevance of the electric way against the other stakeholders. The fact that there is no longer any real documented debate and that we have witnessed instead a kind of ideological war of position explains the difficulty of closing the parenthesis.

However, contrary to a reading that questions the political decision to move towards electrification, T. Pardi suggests in his report to come back to the weighting of vehicles and the move upmarket by presenting his work in these terms: "We also underline the contradictions that arise from the combination of this pre-existing drift of the market with accelerated electrification. The result is a faster upmarket shift that significantly reduces the environmental benefits of electrification while making its economic, social and political costs much higher." 

This brings us into the debate on what form the electrification movement in Europe should take, now decided for good or bad reasons.

Noting that the real reduction of emissions from the European fleet through the registration of ever larger, longer, heavier and more expensive thermal vehicles has led us into a dead end and has led to an undivided victory for electric vehicles, it is now a question of not making the same mistakes with electric vehicles as with thermal ones.

The commentary that ETUI produces on the report on its website is along these lines. It reads:

"The drift towards the top of the range - in contradiction with the objectives of the green transition - has continued and the average BEV in Europe has gained almost 600 kg over the last ten years. Yet most of the time (...) this oversized, overpowered car carries on average only 1.3 people, travelling less than 50 km per day at less than 60 km per hour. The drift of the market has not only increased the weight of BEVs but also the price (10,000 euros more expensive) in a much higher proportion than conventional cars. They cannot currently be sold in Europe without generous public subsidies. In contrast, Chinese mini-cars are already cheaper to buy than equivalent petrol cars and are the best-selling BEVs in China, without subsidies. If European generalist carmakers decided to withdraw from the entry-level market, it would be Chinese generalist carmakers who would take their place."

It is indeed urgent to put an end to self-censorship in order to face the industrial, social, environmental and geopolitical problems posed by the electric choice.  

In order to avoid a return to the ideological front versus front, it seems to us that it is politically and intellectually more appropriate to deliberately place oneself downstream of the question than to continue to dream of a return to the thermal or hybrid option, which has become very unlikely.

For this debate to be fruitful, it will be necessary to give a full and complete place to the technical arguments, to the manufacturers, to the equipment suppliers and to the employees of this industry. This will require not only that politicians be more educated and better advised scientifically and technically, but also that we citizens be more educated and demanding in this respect.

19/12/2022
 

The weekly column by Bernard Jullien is also on www.autoactu.com.

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