The government of France announced plans to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040, with ecology minister Nicolas Hulot unveiling a wide range of targets and initiatives timed to coincide with the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last week. The announcement was made as a part of the country’s renewed commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Accords, which were reaffirmed by 19 of the 20 countries gathered at the summit last week.
Hulot also rolled out plans to end the use of coal-fired power plants in the country by 2022 and to stop granting licenses for oil and gas exploration. His initiatives were noted to mirror the campaign promises of Emmanuel Macron, the country’s new prime minister, whose platform was heavy on ambitious environmental goals. Of the major initiatives, the phaseout of coal is viewed to be the most realistic target voiced by the minister; France currently relies on coal for just 5 percent of its energy needs, but the goal of getting nuclear power reliance down from 75 percent to 50 percent in 2025 appears to pose more of a challenge, one connected to an expected increase in the number of electric cars.
Hulot’s comments were met with some skepticism even from environmental and political activists — some of whom have had misgivings about the planned diesel car ban in Paris, set to take effect in 2025 if not sooner. As with smaller citywide initiatives, Hulot’s plans appeared to move policy too fast, at the cost of industry and ultimately jobs, and most industry analysts were skeptical of the world’s sixth largest economy being able to transition away from fossil fuels that quickly.
Paris recently instituted a partial ban on cars within city limits made before 1997. Photo by Autoweek
Hulot was quick to address the concerns of naysayers, indicating that low-income drivers who may not be able to afford electric cars by that timeframe will be given government help.
Despite the ambitious goal, Peugeot Citroen owner PSA signaled it was on board with the minister’s plans, as the automaker already plans to offer electric or hybrid versions of 80 percent of its models by the year 2023.
Still, France will have to deal with more than the French automotive industry, which does not exist in a vacuum and will have to continue to supply other countries with gasoline and diesel-engined cars. Even if all French automakers will be able to satisfy the domestic market by 2040 with electric cars, other automakers that enjoy a significant presence in France may not be so quick. The ban effectively acts as a trade barrier inside the borderless European Union, a condition likely to be viewed with ire by other automakers.
Hulot’s plans also envision far greater energy production with the 2040 goal: Cars using electricity and other alternative energy sources, such as hydrogen, will require far greater energy production and a vastly upgraded power grid — all that electricity still has to come from somewhere — and this ultimately brings us back to the issue of nuclear power plants. Coupled with the 2025 target for nuclear power, France will have to develop new means of generating electricity very rapidly, with solar power being the most likely option in the short term.
Hulot’s proposed plans once again drew calls of discrimination against owners of older vehicles, whether by choice or by income. Photo by Autoweek
Aside from largely ignoring the issue of electrification of trucks, which is happening far more slowly than passenger cars, Hulot’s plans also appear to disregard second and third-order effects if the 2040 ban on gasoline and diesel-engined cars proceeds as planned. Absent some technological miracle, the rapid shift to electric cars will require major increases in the production of car batteries, either at home or overseas, and the metals that will have to be mined for their production will cause ecological harm elsewhere, likely outside of France. The planned ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars in 2040 also ignores the promise of advances in synthetic fuels, which may allow internal combustion engines to operate much cleaner in the future without significant changes in underlying technology. The proposed ban, if not adopted across the European Union, may also have the effect of placing a burden on neighboring countries, which rely on France’s economy and petroleum industry, in effect creating a distinct economic island in France that may disadvantage poorer neighboring states.
The upcoming 2025 ban on diesels in Paris well may be a trial run for the current government’s plans: The mayors of Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens announced plans to end the use of diesel cars and trucks within their cities by this year. Other cities are expected to follow suit. If these small experiments succeed, the 2040 goal may appear achievable not just to France but to other EU countries closely tied to its economy.