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Transport Changes and Resource Scarcity: A Change in the Growth Model?

06.13.24 | Blog | By:

The United Nations recently published the second edition of its Global Resources Outlook 2024. When regulations and media heavily focus on the replacement of fossil by renewable energy, the over-exploitation of the planet resources is often neglected. In 50 years, natural resources usage has tripled and could further increase by 60% over the next 40 years in a business-as-usual scenario of boundless consumerism, with linear supply chains, from extraction to waste.

The UN report concludes that such an over-exploitation would comfort climate-change, mass extinction of species and ecosystems degradation, even if de-fossilization of energy production would have been completed. This will happen unless we embrace systemic changes on a global basis in food diet, in housing models and in transport habits while moving toward circular supply chains, which could reduce the stress on resources.

One such systemic, quite seismic, change would see mobility switch from individual to public transport. Demand for resources used in new vehicles would be quite reduced, according to the model used by UN experts. This would include metals (steel, aluminum), plastics and minerals (lithium, rare earths, not to forget good old copper, described by Ed Conway as the nervous system of our economy). Mind you, an EV can use up to 100 kg of copper. Should the global car pool be fully electric, this would represent 5 years of present copper production, just for cars!

Changing demand from solo car usage to soft mobility, walking and biking, and public transportation would be quite a revolution. To be fast and effective, this change would have to come from a heavy, Hobbs-like public hand, not from market forces, largely ignoring climate negative externalities, or from individual citizens’ free, and mostly selfish, choices. Favoring long-term strategy and anticipation, ex-ante, rather than reaction or hand-wringing, ex-post.

Public transport network expansion and increased usage are high on many national political agendas. Consider these examples in Europe:

  • The nationwide cheap fare policy, season ticket-like, in Germany, to increase rail usage across the country.
  • In France, the 2023 regulation to facilitate the introduction of express rail networks in large cities or the Greater Paris metropolitan network extension, which ambitions are to double the share of rail-based mobility.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, the car industry is looking to mutate away from internal combustion engine technology to electric propulsion, with the main objective to reduce CO2 emissions from individual road transport by doing away with liquid, mostly fossil, fuels. When this industry represents 10% of GDP, like in Germany, home to one quarter of the European car production capacity, we are dealing with a topic having a significant impact on the social body, in terms of employment (24 assembly plants and many, many contractors) and fiscal resources for the nation at large. Politicians cannot ignore the sector and its strategy.

But the car industry business model is still based on the race for volumes: 10 million cars were manufactured in the world every year in 1950, mostly in the U.S. It grew to 30 million by 1970, thanks to newcomers from Japan and Europe, 50 million in 1990, up to 90 million in the last decade. This was spurred by the awesome rise in China in the last 20 years, and it is now getting top position for EV (60% of global capacity, according to the Chinese government) and threatening to swamp the world with these, starting with the U.S. and the EU, where regulations encourage the switch to electromobility. And, note, every year, the position of world leader in car production is still making media headlines, the recent effort on margins by some car makers, at the expense of volumes, being in competition with the rise in sales of EVs.

This growth model has an impact on resources and contradict the advocacy in the Global Resources Outlook. So, on one hand, a legacy industrial sector in the largest economies of the West, in the process of reinventing a manufacturing supply chain around electricity, but keeping volumes as a fundamental proposition value, on the other hand, the resource constraint and the alternative mobility approach, centered on public transport. In democracies, where this debate is free and open, though possibly heavily ideology fraught, how can politicians convince citizens of the viability of the second alternative, and stay in power? Money, the basic and common denominator everything seems to go back to in times of crisis?

In France, transport costs have been just below 15% of household expenses for the last 40 years, but it was 10% 60 years ago, largely expressing the development of car usage, every day and for the holidays. With the return of inflation, and the foreseen and forewarned increase of expenses related to the fight against or adaptation to climate change, sooner or later, any measure aiming at reducing constrained expenses is welcome: such as free public transport.

Experiments have been conducted in many municipalities. Success in terms of traffic increase has been observed, +70 % in Dunkirk, with 100,000 inhabitants in the north of France, x4 in Hasselt, 80,000 inhabitants in Flemish Belgium, +6 % in Tallinn, Estonia. Alas, academic studies regarding these experiments conclude that:

  • The financial element explains less than half of the success, when quality and frequency of the service are the main reasons, which by the way explain the differences in traffic increase performance,
  • The modal shift, from car to public transport, is less than 10%, meaning new adepts of free public transport may be former pedestrians or car passengers, not converted motorists per se,
  • The financing of free public transport can negatively impact other “environmental” measures that could have more effect on climate, like the construction of bike lanes.

This grim conclusion bodes ill for the financial incentive as a nudge to shift from car to bus, metro or train. Remain the traditional punitive measures to deter car usage, like speed and parking limitations or artificial road constrictions, but these are politically risky, opponents of the power in place being quick to name and shame these regulations as car-bashing, not that popular in our car-centric civilization, so far, at least.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and  Innovation Platform (ETIP).

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