“The electric car is not enough”

Aurélien Bigo is a researcher associated with the Energy and Wealth Chair and a specialist in the transport energy transition.

Reporters — For several days we have seen long lines in front of gas stations, people fighting at the pumps… What does this reveal about our relationship with oil? ?

This shows the dependency situation we are in. In a climate crisis, despite all the challenges, we can see that it is already difficult to separate from oil in the medium to long term. Today, it is very difficult to significantly reduce oil consumption in a few days. These rushes towards gas stations also show the structural nature of oil in mobility. It is used to access jobs, companies and activities. These are very strong needs in lifestyle.

Petroleum fuels account for 98 % of energy consumption in the mobility sector (including 7 % of biofuels included in diesel and petrol), against only 2 % for electricity When energy is needed to drive our transport, oil is therefore still in high demand. It also has to do with our lifestyle. Historically, there has been a double movement, both towards long distances, but also towards more individual mobility. The combination of the two makes the car stand out in mobility, relying on 98 % gasoline. Today, the share of electricity is between 1 and 2 % of the French car fleet.

In this context of energy crisis, do you think the electric car is a good solution to get out of this dependence on oil? ?

In an electric car, there is the component car »and electrification. It can be interesting to separate the two, as electrification is crucial to achieving our climate goals. So if we don’t take this turn towards the electric, we will miss those goals. We also need to revise the car’s place in our mobility in a more global way, and at that time we will have to play on the five levers of energy transition for transport:

1. moderating the demand for transport: trying to avoid unnecessary journeys, reducing the distance between work and home ;

2. modal shift towards active mobility such as walking or cycling, or towards public transport ;

3. improving the filling of vehicles, e.g. when carpooling ;

4. reduction of vehicle energy consumption: this includes purely mechanical aspects, but also sobriety measures such as eco-driving or reducing the speed on the roads ;

5. decarbonisation of energy: switch from oil to other energies, especially electricity for the car. This is the least bad of the solutions at the moment.

In terms of climate, the electric car is also not sufficient. It produces only three times less emissions than a thermomobile, which is insufficient. Furthermore, the renewal period for the car fleet is very long, and the costs of buying electric cars remain high. If we want to reduce emissions and oil consumption in the short term, especially for geopolitical reasons, we must not rely only on this lever.

On the other hand, we could consider turning to light vehicles or intermediate between the bicycle and the car, such as the wagon [des véhicules légers électriques]electric bikes, cargo bikes that can carry more loads, folding bikes that can be combined with public transport, tandem or multi-seat bikes.

Getting out of this dependence on oil, doesn’t it risk a social crisis? ?

It all depends on how the transition will be handled. A priori, we have rather an adaptation between the levers I mentioned and a reduction in the cost of mobility. For example, if we reduce distances, it will reduce transport costs. If we use the bicycle more often, or if we carpool, it costs less for the user than the private car. Ditto if we go to vehicles that consume less energy, more sober, cheaper to buy and use.

The most vulnerable people are also those who depend on the car while having relatively low incomes. If we are more ambitious about the energy transition, they will be the main beneficiaries.

Do you think the fuel shortage could have lasting effects on our current mobility system ?

It all depends on how long the shortage lasts. There have already been many crises like this, but unfortunately we do not draw any consequences for the vulnerability of our transport system. It is enough to compare with Covid-19, which was a longer crisis and which could lead to reflections: temporary bicycle facilities for example. However, we see that mobility behaviors have gone back to the way they were before. In a crisis of a few days, I don’t expect it to be any different.

On the other hand, what changes in relation to Covid is that this shortage affects the fuel immediately. It is a natural incentive for anything that goes in the direction of reducing oil consumption. In comparison, Covid has not favored carpooling or public transport due to social distancing. But on the other hand, during the public transport strike at the end of 2019 in Paris, we could observe quite lasting effects on cycling practices.

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