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Mobility of the Future: Towards a Shared Sobriety?

Special issue : n°170 : Freedom of Movement in a Zero-Carbon World

Politique Internationale When was the négaWatt association founded? And what is its purpose?

Charline Dufournet — The négaWatt association was born nearly 20 years ago, in 2001. The initial idea, which remains central today, was to think differently about energy issues by focusing above all on consumption, and by extension, on ways to save energy. You have to cast yourself back to the start of the 2000s: at that time, the energy debate was mainly concerned with the question of the means of production. Very often it was reduced to “for or against nuclear power”. In short, the founders of négaWatt wanted to escape this binary construct, and all reductive constructs in general. Remember that the energy question is not just about electricity: in France, electricity accounts for only 23% of final energy consumption. In this context, the strength of négaWatt lies in its ability to provide an overall analysis of the energy system. It leads us to think about the possible complementarity between various renewable energies and their usage, over the short and long term. NégaWatt was built around the search for a means of collective thinking by bringing together volunteer members with different profiles and experience: energy practitioners, but also engineers, researchers, economists, people with a sound knowledge of the public sphere, as well as representatives from civil society – a complementarity of expertise that enriches our work.

P. I. You make an observation: that the energy debate has been hijacked by advocates and opponents of atomic power. How can we overcome this divide?

C. D. — One way to bypass this debate is to consider the ecological transition as a whole, while thinking about the challenges it has to respond to. For négaWatt, this transition is not simply a matter of reducing CO2 emissions. It has to result in a reduction of all the impacts (environmental, social, etc) and risks linked to our energy system in order to move towards a model that is more sustainable, fairer, and less wasteful. NégaWatt takes these three areas into account in its work.

         The first of these refers to energy sobriety, against a background of changing usage. The idea of consuming less but better is a common-sense move. We can, for example, raise awareness among consumers of simple measures like turning off your computer at night, or purchasing products that match your needs (there’s no need to purchase a 4X4 for getting around town). But sobriety does not rest solely on the shoulders of the consumer: certain choices rely on the existence, or not, of infrastructure. Look at transport: the role that the private car plays in our lives is a social and political construct that we must allow ourselves to question.

         The second part of this triptych concerns energy efficiency – that is to say, the multiple actions aimed at reducing energy loss. This field of action is crucial because it turns out to be an immediate source of employment, skills and innovation.

         Finally, the third part targets more specifically the development of renewable energies, at a time when it is becoming more and more urgent to move away from fossil fuels. In our work, the fight against climate change is a goal that we constantly bear in mind, but respect for biodiversity, a more sustainable use of primary materials, environmental protection, and the challenges of social justice and international solidarity also play an integral part in our thinking.

P. I. The fight against global warming has also given rise to a political debate. In your opinion, which camp has values that come closest to zero carbon emissions?

C. D. — NégaWatt as an association is not subject to any political movement: we debate freely, we meet people with different sensitivities and we propose solutions that aim to bypass partisan quarrels. Rethinking energy consumption and examining how far usage can be optimised are, furthermore, challenges that transcend traditional battle lines. In the fight against wastage, we don’t first of all ask ourselves what camp we belong to. In France, there is sometimes a feeling that only engineers of the Corps des mines (a prestigious body of highly qualified civil servants) have the right to a say in energy issues. Yet every citizen is involved in these matters. An association like négaWatt seeks to roll back the barriers with a reminder that people on the ground (artisans, consumers, communities…) have, by virtue of experience, every right to express themselves in the debate over energy policy. The Citizen’s Convention on Climate is a remarkable example of this. Such forms of governance should be encouraged, because energy as a field is too important to be held prisoner to a single worldview.

P. I. Beyond the three axes – sobriety, energy efficiency and renewable energies — championed by négaWatt, which are the dossiers that the association is treating as a priority?

C. D. — The fundamental work of négaWatt is focused on the construction of visions for the future, with the aim of providing better guidance for political choices in the short term. In 2017, négaWatt published its latest reference scenario with an outlook to 2050: it sees France achieving carbon neutrality and an energy mix that is 100% renewable. That trajectory is ambitious but achievable, and full of benefits on the social, environmental and economic fronts, which is why we firmly support it. We are certainly going beyond the goals of the government when it comes to ecological transition, but the most worrying thing is perhaps that the steps the government is currently taking fall far short of its own commitments. With regard to controlling energy consumption, the means are still inadequate. Furthermore, the strategy for reducing emissions is being applied with disregard for the challenges of social justice. In short, we often treat as a secondary concern those actions that would allow household energy bills to be sustainably reduced, particularly for the least wealthy. It’s as if the lessons of the “yellow vests” crisis have not been learnt. And yet there are levers to pull, notably in the construction sector where 40% of energy needs are concentrated, principally because of heating and air conditioning. A business sector can and should be developed in France around the area of renovation – incorporating numerous specialised fields – but the current subsidy system still encourages people to seek out projects that are patchy and underperforming. Instead of global and coordinated support, we prefer to pile on tiny measures without much result. On a wider scale, decisions over certain technical matters do not go in the right direction: for example, through new rulings under consideration in the building sector, electric heating risks being widely favoured at the expense of insulation, despite its weight in household budgets. Such an approach is unfortunate when we know we could very easily choose effective insulation and efficient heating methods, like heating pumps.

P. I. So négaWatt supports an energy mix that is 100% renewable by 2050. Does this scenario rely on proven technological foundations or is it more of a pious wish?

C. D. — This scenario has obviously not just come out of nowhere. On the contrary, it is based on a far-reaching examination of consumption, the means of production, and on ways of combining them. The main pillar of this scenario is control of consumption. It must be remembered that reducing greenhouse emissions comes about first of all through energy savings, and that these facilitate the ramping up of renewable energies. Our work shows that this goal of 100% renewable energy is realistic, and that the country would not run the risk of being plunged into darkness at any point. Faced with technical advances and the declining cost of renewable energy, the criticisms traditionally levelled at it no longer apply; the feasibility of a 100% renewable electricity system that is reliable and economical is more obvious every day.  It is based on robust technical studies, contrary to the criticisms of its detractors…

         What’s more, everyone correctly emphasizes the considerable advances in solar and wind power, while often forgetting the huge potential of biomass for heating buildings, and biogas for fuelling cars. The use of these energy sources ought to be encouraged, because they provide for greater stability in the energy production system. They also reconcile agricultural transition with energy transition. On the other hand, at négaWatt we insist on the need for their development to be properly steered by the government: renewable energy in France is not yet out of the woods with regard to detrimental stop-go policies. These sectors start off being speeded up with supportive programmes and tariff conditions, only to be suddenly brought to an abrupt halt. Recent political decisions aimed at throwing the brakes on the development of biogas production capacity are quite worrying.

P. I. Are you not afraid that this search for increased sobriety will weigh on the functioning of the economy? To what extent does négaWatt’s scenario lead to a deceleration of growth? Is a zero carbon life a constricted life?

C. D. — The sobriety initiative aims above all to limit wastage. It is therefore also a driver of competitivity for our economy and our businesses. It is not synonymous with a return to the use of candles, by the way. Rather, it’s a matter of thinking about our needs and of ways of satisfying them while limiting their impact on other populations. For example, we can opt to direct government investment to forms of transport that are less polluting than roads, and which facilitate access to mobility for everyone, the way public transport does. Cars are not necessarily synonymous with freedom of movement: some people don’t have access to them because they cannot afford them. In the same way, escaping advertising’s dictates towards overconsumption in favour of products that are of better quality, repairable and durable is also a way of restoring meaning to our way of life, while limiting our carbon footprint beyond our borders. Sobriety is everyone’s business. So that consumers can make the right choices, the government and economic players need to create the conditions that make that possible: promoting an eco-design logic rather than built-in obsolescence; rethinking regional planning in our territories; developing cycling and railway infrastructure; setting up price signals that truly reflect negative externalities, etc. That jet fuel is still untaxed today, when a plane journey creates 45 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the same journey by train, poses a problem. Finally, and this can be seen today, sobriety also fosters resilience. When we relocate production and modify supply chains towards a circular economy, we can generate investment, jobs and wealth in our territories.

         We also have to clarify what kind of growth or slowdown we are talking about. NégaWatt’s scenario is a trajectory for slowing down everything that consumes finite resources, but for growth in things that conserve them. It could create 600,000 additional jobs between now and 2050. What would be the impact on GDP, some people ask. Economic evaluations of the négaWatt scenario show a positive impact in relation to the underlying trend. Finally, GDP is not the only benchmark. It can be artificially inflated by activities that generate waste. We need to revisit these indicators the better to think out our economic model in the light of the imperatives of energy transition.

P. I. Not all parties are contributing with the same alacrity to a decarbonised world. The attitude of big companies is often singled out. They’re said to be slow in getting up to speed in the fight against global warming. What’s the view of this at négaWatt?

C. D. — Basically, the biggest industrial and services groups no longer have a choice. Like all the other players in the economy, they’re aware of the climate indicators. If we do nothing, they know very well that we’re headed for disaster. Economic evaluations of scenarios like négaWatt’s, but also that of the association Entreprises pour l’Environnement, show that these actors have every interest in becoming the drivers of energy transition. For them it’s a matter of anticipating the necessary transformations within their sector and of grasping the economic opportunities. On this point, it’s essential that policy decision-makers fulfil their role as planners and regulators, so as to send the necessary signals right away to mobilise these players, while assuring them of long-term visibility. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case today. The negative or positive externalities of certain activities are not always sufficiently accounted for in the economic indicators. When it comes to the big groups, experience shows that certain leaders move more swiftly than others. In France, Isabelle Kocher began to reorient Engie (formerly GDF-Suez) towards decarbonised solutions. This shift towards making the group a world leader in the transition to zero carbon encountered deep hostility in certain business and/or political milieus: furthermore, Isabelle Kocher’s post as head of the group was not renewed. Without getting into personal issues, this episode shows very clearly how much work remains to be done to transform our economy into a responsible one. The effort to draw up a green taxonomy on a Europe-wide scale is a good signal that should encourage the finance sector to accelerate its transformation.

P. I. The planet is undergoing an unprecedented health crisis. In terms of managing energy consumption and, by extension, protecting the planet, will this episode have any beneficial effects?

C. D. — The coronavirus crisis shows that our techno-economic world is fragile. The pressure of the global production system on the natural environment and on diversity has created the conditions for the emergence of diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Long and complex supply chains have revealed the inability of certain States to ensure self-sufficiency in products like protective masks. The health shock is turning into an economic and social crisis, because vulnerable people are being made even weaker. What will it be like in the face of climate change, which can produce much bigger crises (scarcity of food, natural disasters, lack of water, climate migration, etc.)? Given this analysis, there has to be a “before” and an “after” coronavirus. To tell ourselves we can set off again for the long term in the same way we have been living for so many years would be unthinkable. Our thinking patterns and the ways we act have to be completely rethought. At négaWatt, we hope that the challenges of sustainability, as much from an environmental as a social point of view, will be placed at the heart of political and economic decisions. Prioritising public support, and steering investment towards activities that generate a reduced dependence on finite resources and a better valuing of the wealth on our territories, is essential and makes common sense. We hope that the government will take up the formidable work achieved by the Citizen’s Convention on Climate to guide state intervention as well as the investments mobilised under the framework of the recovery plan.

P. I. What will the movement of goods and people look like for you in a zero carbon world?

C. D. — It will be more intelligent, since in order to achieve a zero carbon world, our mobility as a whole will have to be rethought. We will have created the conditions in which people will no longer be dependent on cars, and can use modes of transport that are more sustainable and appropriate to their needs. That involves improved urban planning, the development of infrastructure for cycling and rail, investment in alternative modes of transport and solutions for car-sharing in rural areas, a reorganisation of our work habits, etc, with real quality-of-life benefits! When it comes to freight transport, we will have also favoured shorter supply channels, encouraged a lengthening in the shelf-life of products, promoted railway freight by setting up price signals that accurately reflect the environmental benefits it entails, and optimised the fill rate of heavy vehicles so as to reduce the number of vehicles in circulation, and the consumption associated with them.

         Projecting ourselves into a zero carbon world invites us to rethink as from now the economic models of sectors like the automobile industry by encouraging the development of lighter vehicles, of electric bikes, in the context of production processes that are energy-efficient over the vehicles’ whole life cycle. Of course, mobility in a zero carbon world implies escaping from our dependence on imported fossil fuels by doing without petroleum. In order to replace it, different engine specifications will have to be developed: for electricity and bioNGV in cars, for bioNGV in heavy vehicles. For planes, the only solution currently available involves replacing jet fuel with agrofuels. But the impact of that is far from neutral. To avoid having to choose between travel for a privileged segment of the population and eating, it will therefore be essential significantly to reduce the number of journeys by plane.

P. I.How will that affect freedom of movement?

C. D. — We have to distinguish between what does and doesn’t fall under the notion of freedom of movement. The periods of lockdown that we are currently going through, yes. But the transformation of our modes of transport into more sustainable options, no. The “yellow vests” movement reminded us that cars do not necessarily spell freedom. They are often associated with obligatory travel (between home and work), with a significant financial burden, and a substantial amount of time spent in traffic jams. Under our prospective energy scenario, French people will continue to travel, just as they will continue to use heating (in homes that will have become more comfortable), to feed themselves (with good quality food) and to use lighting (with more efficient lamps). They’d strive to reduce obligatory travel with the development of telecommuting and urban planning that promoted local services and mixed usages. Alternative means of transport and public transport would be developed. As for air travel, the Covid crisis has already shown us that a large number of business meetings could be held without difficulty as videoconferences, to the benefit of employees. As for those who love taking their holidays at the other end of the continent, we’d invite them of course to reinvent their type of travel: to explore the surroundings, to opt for ecotourism. Freedom to travel has to take place within the planet’s limitations, and with a sense of global equity. Travelling takes time; we have to learn to appreciate it again!

This interview was conducted in November 2020.