‘Don’t Look Up’: The engine-makers’ answer to the climate crisis

Alex Keynes — January 14, 2022

Scenes from the Netflix comedy recall the latest lobbying campaign to keep fossil fuel engines on our roads

Netflix’s disaster comedy Don’t Look Up divided audiences between those (probably in the minority) hailing it as a clever satire and the rest who found it a bit short on wit. But all would probably agree that one of the film’s funnier moments – because it’s believable – is the president’s reaction to news that a ‘planet killer’ comet is headed for earth. “I say we sit tight and assess,” Meryl Streep’s character tells the stunned scientists and her son and aide (Jonah Hill) who slowly repeats back the line in a bid to dress up White House apathy as decisiveness.

It’s the same complacent attitude behind the latest scaremongering around electric vehicles by engine-makers, repeated back to them by their allies in the oil industry. Europe has, at most, 13 years left to sell its last fossil fuel car if it’s to have all polluting vehicles off the road by 2050 – a basic requirement if the bloc is to hit its climate goals. Instead we’re essentially being told by elements of the auto industry and oil companies to “sit tight and assess” before setting an end date for the polluting combustion engine. 

Not leaving the gate open for internal combustion engines (ICEs) after 2035 would put half a million jobs at risk, claims CLEPA, a lobby group representing businesses which supply parts for combustion engines. It commissioned a study which cherrypicked data to produce the gloomiest outlook possible. T&E contrasted its findings with two earlier reports by the Boston Consulting Group and found numerous questionable assumptions in the industry’s study:

The industry report downplays the EV value chain, which CLEPA estimates will create just 200,000 new jobs by 2040. But last year a Boston Consulting Group report found that a switch to EVs would create 581,000 new jobs by 2030 – including in roles related to charging infrastructure and related services.

The engine suppliers also forget about new EV components. Their claims that making battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is less labour intensive than manufacturing ICEs are based on the powertrain only. BEVs require many additional components including the battery and complex system of power electronics. In fact, the total labour requirements for BEVs vs ICEs are almost the same: 99% of the current number employed, according to another BCG study.

The pessimistic analysis is not even based on a full transition. The ‘EV only scenario’ in CLEPA’s study still leaves the door open to combustion engines via fuel credits in 2030 and 2035 – thereby underestimating the full job creating potential of EVs.

They also ignore the battery revolution. The suppliers’ claims that the timing and likelihood of a deep battery supply chain in Europe is “still uncertain” ignores the fact that 474 GWh of production is concretely planned up to 2030, with 670 GWh additionally announced. T&E’s own market monitoring has shown a total estimated capacity of 460 GWh in 2025 alone, enough to power around 8 million battery electric cars.

The industry also likes to claim that Central and Eastern Europe will lose out on electric vehicle production compared to Western European countries. These regions will in fact benefit massively from the transition to electric. Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are expected to have the highest level of BEV production per capita: 50-80 BEVs produced per person in 2030.

The engine suppliers’ alternative solution – its ‘mixed technology scenario’ – is not even Green Deal compliant. Their supposedly superior path assumes only a 65% CO2 reduction from new cars by 2035.

Another Meryl Streep line makes clear the reason for the White House’s apathy: “What’s it gonna cost me?” But we would do well to turn the question around: what would the car industry’s so-called solution cost us? Its claims that ‘climate neutral’ e-fuels are good for emissions, consumers and industry, ignore simple facts. First, the lifetime CO2 emissions of e-petrol/diesel vehicles are 38-46% higher than a BEV’s due to the massive amounts of energy needed to make the fuels. Second, lab tests have confirmed e-petrol vehicles pollute the same amount of toxic NOx emissions as petrol. Third, running a car on e-petrol or e-diesel will be 43% more expensive for drivers over a five-year period. And finally, a system of e-fuel credits will be more costly for carmakers.

The majority of automotive suppliers let the electric revolution pass them by and now they skew the facts to produce the gloomiest jobs outlook possible. But if we do “look up”, we’ll see what the EV transition will really mean for jobs, consumers and the planet. Fully electric vehicles beat e-petrol cars on every measure.

This opinion article was first published by EurActiv.

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