For the engineer Maxence Cordiez, it is important to acknowledge the failure of our energy transition policy and to consider an alternative, which could involve reducing our consumption.
Europe is struggling with a heat wave that is causing forest fires from Greece to the Arctic Circle. In the coming years, these events will become more frequent and violent. However, in 2016, greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change, increased in France and exceeded by 3.6% the government’s national low-carbon scenario, which aims to reduce them by a factor of 4 by 2050. Why are we losing this race for the climate on which our future depends?
A little technical reminder. The so-called “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) have the property of causing global warming by preventing thermal radiation from dissipating into the universe. This is the case for carbon dioxide (CO2), which is produced by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and methane (emitted by ruminant animals, among others). Apart from the agricultural sector, man-made greenhouse gases come mainly from fossil fuels. To reduce them, we have two options: change energy sources and reduce our consumption.
Changing energy sources: the carbon transition
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must replace fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) with low-carbon energy sources (renewable, nuclear, geothermal, etc.), first and foremost in the sectors that consume the most: transport and building heating.
In France, the logical priority should therefore be to develop thermal renewable energies, capable of replacing fuel oil and heating gas. However, that is not what we are doing. According to a recent report published by the Court of Auditors, thermal renewable energies receive only a little more than one-tenth of the public subsidies allocated to electrical renewable energies (solar and wind), even though the latter replace nuclear electricity production (low carbon) with a zero climate balance.
If all our efforts are aimed at substituting low-carbon energy sources for each other rather than replacing fossil fuels, we will continue to aggravate climate change.
Fossil fuels have the advantage of being easily accessible, cheap, concentrated and storable without effort, unlike electricity, which is poorly stored and has significant losses. Low-carbon energy sources have other disadvantages, such as intermittency in the case of solar and wind power. This is why, in 2016, 80% of the primary energy consumed worldwide was of fossil origin (compared to 6.4% for hydroelectricity, 4.2% for nuclear, 1.5% for wind and 0.5% for solar). An energy transition that would be based only on a simple change of energy source without significantly reducing energy consumption at the same time is thus illusory. This aspect should be at the heart of the very concept of ecological transition.
The mistake is to believe that the energy transition is a simple question of engineering, transparent to the population. In reality, it is mainly a question of society and changing consumption patterns. We must put in place tools to promote energy efficiency and sobriety at national and European level. Some actions are simple (banning fridges without doors in stores…), others less so because they will affect elements of comfort that we imagined we had acquired. For example, the transport sector is the main contributor to climate change in France. This could lead to a decision to limit the fuel consumption of new vehicles by law. For the avoided greenhouse gas emissions to be sufficient to meet our climate objectives, this consumption limit would have to be low enough, but this would affect vehicle performance (speed, payload, etc.). This is why it is essential to involve the population in the energy transition, whose impact on their lifestyle will only be accepted if they fully understand the issues involved.
Climate change is probably the main threat to our survival in the coming decades. It comes from what makes our societies comfortable: the over-consumption of energy, essentially fossil. Coal burned in China gives us access to high-performance computers and telephones at low cost. The essence allows us to move quickly and without effort or constraint. Containing climate change will therefore not be easy and will require a significant effort from all of us. Without it, the energy transition will continue to be a failure, for which we will all pay the bill.