Does the European ecological transition have lead in the wing? A report by the European Court of Auditors, published on Monday 19 June, casts doubt on the EU's ability to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets in the highly strategic area of transport.
Launched with great fanfare by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in December 2019, the Green Deal aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. At the heart of this project is the transition to the electric battery, as road transport alone accounts for one fifth of the EU's CO2 emissions.
Europe is investing heavily in this sector, which it aims to become a global engine with the aim of banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035. According to experts, this measure should make it possible to achieve the carbon neutrality of the sector, i.e. the balance between the emissions produced by vehicles on the road and the absorption of greenhouse gases.
However, despite significant progress and an investment of eight billion euros in public support, the European Union remains "lagging behind" in the "global race for batteries", worries the European Court of Auditors in its new report.
Difficulties related to the international situation but also to a lack of vision on battery production capacity, on the control of financing or even on the supply of raw materials. France 24 spoke with the auditor of the report to the Court of Auditors Annemie Turtelboom.
France 24 - The report lists a series of weaknesses in the strategy for the production of electric batteries in Europe. What do you think are the most problematic aspects?
Annemie Turtelboom - First of all, we decided to do an audit on batteries because of the colossal importance of the issue. It is estimated that the number of electric cars in the European Union is expected to increase from just over one million today to 30 million in 2030. The battery is therefore a tool that should allow us to achieve carbon neutrality but also the economic sovereignty of the EU, by relocating its production chain to the continent.
This involves the construction of giga-factories but also the supply of raw materials. In this area, Europe is largely dependent on imports from third countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, China and Chile. Negotiations have been initiated but at this stage, the EU has not managed to conclude a free trade agreement, which weakens its industry. Moreover, this dependence is all the more worrying as it concerns a small number of countries that sometimes pose problems of governance or even stability.
In addition to the issue of taming, we found a significant gap between EU targets and production monitoring. On the one hand, there is the very clear decision to ban the sale of new combustion vehicles from 2035 and, on the other, estimates based on obsolete data to build the future of the European battery. These are based in particular on industrial projects under development, but there is no guarantee that these will not relocate if better conditions are offered elsewhere.
The assessment of raw material needs is also problematic because it is based on documents that are already several years old. Massive funding has been mobilized but here again we lack the overall vision to optimize its investments.
To sum up, the Commission has put the cart before the oxen. These shortcomings and the lack of a quantified target do not allow it to monitor European competitiveness and the balance between supply and demand.
The report also warns of the impact of several harmful external phenomena such as inflation or aggressive US protectionist measures. What are the risks for Europe?
Europe is of course not alone in the electric battery market. All indications are that fierce global competition for raw materials will generate shortages in the short term. From 2025 onwards, supply is expected to become much more difficult due to exploding demand.
This situation risks exploding the cost of battery production, which currently represents 40% of the cost of the electric car, and thus making it unaffordable for citizens.
Battery production also requires a lot of energy, which is problematic in the current context of inflation related to the war in Ukraine.
Finally, Europe could see its industrial projects go to the United States, which has set up a system of massive subsidies to promote the purchase and production of electric cars, batteries and minerals produced on its soil.
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Is the sector's 2035 climate neutrality objective realistic? What about the bloc's 2050 carbon neutrality goal?
It seems almost impossible for the EU to achieve zero carbon by 2035 with its own production. We will have to import batteries and electric cars in large numbers, which is a danger to our industry. The battery 'made in Europe' may quickly fall flat. However, in addition to the climate challenge, it is also a question of protecting an economic sector: the automotive industry, which represents more than 12 million jobs at EU level.
The problem is that apart from massive imports, the only other option is to postpone the objective of carbon neutrality in the transport sector beyond 2035, which would cause heavy climate impacts. That is why we can no longer afford to sail by sight: we need clear and precise statistical tools that allow the EU to set realistic production targets for the future.
Among the measures intended to accompany the transition to electricity is the reopening of mines in Europe. Is that essential? Can it allow sovereignty over the supply of raw materials? What about the ecological cost?
Mines can help, but at present this is not enough to compensate for materials imported from third countries. It takes between 12 and 16 years from the discovery of a mine to production. We have the same problem with recycling, which is not a short-term solution because we do not have enough batteries in circulation.
Added to this is the ecological cost of opening mines and recycling, which consumes a lot of energy, even if this aspect is not directly part of the issues analyzed in our report.
Does the use of electric batteries still appear to be a solution? Could it become a financial abyss that is ultimately not ecologically efficient?
At present, it is clear that there are not many other solutions. The Commission is taking a close interest in hydrogen and is setting up financing, but this technology is not a short-term alternative.
Electric vehicles remain the EU's priority. The European battery industry is lagging behind its competitors, notably China and to a lesser extent the United States. It needs to be more attentive to the harsh realities of economic policies, particularly on the issue of access to raw materials and cost competitiveness. This is the absolute priority if Europe is to hope one day to win its bet and become truly competitive in this market. We must not lose hope, but it is true that the situation, after analysis, is worrying.
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