Tell me where your energy comes from…

…and I will tell you if you are just greenwashing us.

By Pedro Castro – Director, SkyExpert Consulting. Green Mobility Magazine Editorial Board Member.

In 2020, the transportation sector was responsible for a staggering 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with private cars contributing over 40% to this ominous figure, as reported by Kersten Heineke, Timo Möller, and their co-authors in a recent McKinsey quarterly article. Unsurprisingly, the imperative to decarbonize mobility has become a central concern in developing a comprehensive strategy beyond mere tailpipe emissions.

In this decarbonization process, it seems all our problems will be solved through a new generation of electric cars, boats, and airplanes. But as industries of all kinds scramble to adopt electrical solutions, assuming an almost magical abundance of clean electricity, a reality check is in order.

Renewable energy sources are currently struggling to meet our existing electricity needs, and accommodating the additional demand from the electrification of transportation and industries poses an even greater challenge. So, understanding the composition of the world’s electricity sources is vital before placing the planet’s future in a single straight-up bet in electricity. How much of it is still derived from coal, diesel, and gas, particularly in countries where these remain major contributors and traditional thermal powerplants are built? What does this transition to electric mobility mean in regions heavily reliant on non-renewable energy, and how can we overcome this? In this context, electric cars seem like a silver bullet for the automobile industry: they aren’t really a solution for the planet but more of a lifeline for the automotive sector. 

In aviation, for instance, all hopes pivot around Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as if this poses as the singular issue. But even so, Lufthansa’s Group CEO, Carsten Spohr, has recently provided a sobering reminder of the reality of this situation. He stated that the energy required to produce enough SAF to power the entire Lufthansa fleet would require half of Germany’s electricity supply. Simultaneously, it’s important to remember that SAF is chemically identical to fossil jet fuel and emits the same amount of CO2 when burnt. So, will SAF really solve the problem? Or will it create another one in the future, competing for energy, livestock, and public funding for its production? At this pace, it is no wonder airlines keep adding skyrocketing orders for traditional airplanes. Considering their lengthy lifespan, the aviation sector seems poised to maintain – if not increase – the status quo for the next 30 years. 

Instead of pinning hopes on an elusive miracle solution, it’s time for public policy and businesses to focus on immediate, pragmatic measures. Efficiency, distribution, and degrowth should be at the forefront of discussions. At the same time, the debate should not be solely about emissions. It is also crucial to broaden the conversation to other equally relevant environmental areas of our activity, which is why this journey toward decarbonization requires a multifaceted approach. 

We cannot afford to just wait for a perfect solution delivered by science and the ability to scale such inventions to the current industrial levels we have; instead, we must act with urgency with public policymakers and businesses shifting their focus towards holistic and practical solutions that contribute to solving this matter. By addressing inefficiencies, improving distribution networks, changing pricing policies and embracing sustainable degrowth strategies, we can make meaningful strides toward a sustainable future here and now…not in 2050. 

Scientifically speaking, the shift to electric mobility is a critical step, yes, but it must be complemented by a broader perspective that considers the source of that electricity. Otherwise, we risk deceiving ourselves with increasingly sophisticated greenwashing tactics that may consume funds and provide no solution, ultimately only benefiting the very same industries that are responsible for the current state of affairs – and if there is one thing we cannot afford at this time, it’s reverting back to square one.