Hamburg (Brussels Morning) Five years after the Paris Agreement, time seems ripe for climate action. Europe is stepping up to the task with serious objectives to match the severity of the challenge. Old industries, including the oil industry and car manufacturers, are resisting.
Ambition to match the challenge
In a historic move, last week, European Union leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by the year 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
Despite being the result of a compromise between member states, that is a credible milestone towards the 2050 climate neutrality objective. The previous target set by the European Council had been 40% by 2030, whereas the European Parliament called for 60%.
In practical terms, the new goalpost calls for immediate industrial reforms and massive investment, private and public. It goes without saying that these objectives will be challenged politically and on the level of public opinion.
Ageing industries under threat
Old industries die giving birth to new sectors of the economy.
The steeply falling prices of renewable energies is the most striking example of how a new kind of economy creates realistic prospects. Solar energy is now cheaper than coal and gas in major economies, given the right scale. Remarkably, this year’s World Energy Outlook report suggests that solar energy prices have declined by 20-to-50%, beating 2020 International Energy Agency (IEA) projections. Onshore and offshore wind farms have also surpassed IAE projections.
That is clearly a blow to the fossil fuel sector. In anticipation of industrial reform, the world’s leading oil companies were forced to write off $80 billion in asset value over the last quarter alone. Not all companies and sectors are up to the challenge, including car manufacturers.
Another blow to the threatened world of fossil fuels is in the transport and mobility sector, which accounts for a quarter of the EU’s Greenhouse Gas (GHS) emissions, with oil products covering 94% of the block’s transport needs today.
Under the Green Deal, in words at least, the twin objective of combating climate change and air pollution acquire the same priority level for the Commission. The perceived trade-off between the two triggered Volkswagen’s 2015 diesel scandal.
“Today’s strategy will shift the way people and goods move across Europe and make it easy to combine different modes of transport in a single journey,” the Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans, observes.
The presentation of the “EU’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Package” last week calls into question the sustainability of the Internal Combustion (IC) engine, which has dominated our civilisation for a century.
To be clear, it is the automotive industry itself that recognises the greater efficiency of electric (and hydrogen) propulsion compared to (fossil fuels) internal combustion engine. A case in point is in an article published by Volkswagen in November 2019.
Fake News as the First Line of Defence
That is where organised lobby groups come in to defend established industrial interests.
The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles; ACEA) habitually undermines environmental policy objectives by questioning their technical feasibility or proportionality. Behind the mask of “technology neutrality,” they make a case for a trade-off between cheap cars and public health of doubtful moral standing. Another tactic is to endorse studies that distort research and common scientific knowledge as a means of questioning the validity of ensuing policy.
The flood of fake news in the European press is not without consequence and is not limited to the margins of the European public sphere. Authoritative newspapers and prominent journalists are buying into “alternative facts” that are, in turn, amplified by social media.
The first objective is spreading doubt over scientific certainty. It all starts with the publication
of studies attacking electric vehicles by shifting attention from the use of the car to
The narrative behind these messages is always the same: electric cars are not clean; indeed, they are perhaps even more polluting and dangerous for our climate and health than petrol-powered cars.
Rationalising the use of petrol
Some of these studies focus on how electricity is produced, making the case that Electric Vehicles (EVs) essentially burn coal. The argument goes that “in the whole of Europe” and “the whole of the world” coal is the fuel of choice for much of the electricity generated. Of course, the argument is false as EU regulation is pushing the EU as a whole towards a more sustainable energy mix. And this is already happening.
Other studies focus on the manufacturing process for electric vehicles, cherry-picking data of CO2 emissions linked to old battery technology production. The argument here is that making the car produces more emissions than running an old-school low emission petrol-run vehicle. A Commission-sponsored study has debunked this argument, showing country by country how beneficial EVs are and how they will improve in ten years.
But the fact that such arguments are scientifically unfounded does not mean they don’t cause damage.
A scientific article published by Nature reports on the negative health effects of air pollution (cell oxidative stress due to particles), highlighting the fact that metallic particles coming from car brakes and wood-burning smoke are the most harmful.
To this report, Le Monde added tyre particles to the list of the bad guys, without substantiating the claim.
Why is this relevant to the “eco-transition” and decarbonisation debate? Because one of the EV’s strengths is that they contribute to better air quality. That is because unlike Internal Combustion (IC) vehicles, EVs have zero exhaust (no tailpipe) and use braking energy to recharge their batteries, thereby reducing particles emitted from conventional mechanical brakes. However, like any road vehicle, they still emit rubber particles, which are large – not nanoparticles – and are not particularly bad at oxidising cells. Incidentally, the fewer cars there are around, the less particulate matter on the asphalt.
In referring to these particles as “toxic,” Le Monde inadvertently undermines the argument for the replacement of IC engines, probably due to careless editorial policy. That is partly how fake news spreads.