“The passionate infatuation with hydrogen is the symptom of a worrying reality, that of a world where the sirens of totemic thought tend to eradicate systemic thought.”

“On Tuesday May 25, the Eiffel Tower was lit with hydrogen!”, “A big step in decarbonization!”. Anyone who has read these triumphantly relayed statements is tempted to believe that a major technological breakthrough happened this week. The reality is somewhat different: where the Eiffel Tower is usually lit with electricity produced by carbon-free means, we are delighted to have made hydrogen from solar energy, which then made it possible to produce electricity, by multiplying CO2 emissions by ten and losing 70% of the initial energy in the process. Why make it simple, inexpensive and almost completely carbon-free when you can make it complicated, expensive and inefficient, by adding a few unnecessary molecules of CO2 to the atmosphere in the process?

Let’s be reassured: “it’s communication”! Without a doubt. Let us be indulgent: scientific culture is not the prerogative of our elites. Even less so when the cards are muddled by all the players in the energy sector, fossil and low-carbon, who use this windfall of the craze around hydrogen to push their pawns, whether it is to compensate for their weaknesses, to justify their existence or quite simply to buy time before the obligatory deadline of their radical transformation.

But above all we should be worried: this passionate infatuation with hydrogen is the symptom of a more worrying reality, that of a world where the sirens of totemic thought tend to eradicate systemic thought. The observation is paradoxical as we must resolve what is arguably one of the greatest systemic problems humanity has ever had to face: climate change. Where complex thinking and the analysis of interferences between technological solutions, industrial policy, economic issues, acceptance of the social body and geopolitical competition should prevail, in short the understanding of reality, is replaced by a simplifying approach. In the era of the image and of the 240 signs, the totem is essential as a perfect communicating object. Hydrogen is certainly one of them, which is even on the way to becoming THE great totem pole of the energy transition. There is no question here of denying that hydrogen has a role to play in key sectors of our economy: steel, aviation, fertilizer production, sea freight, etc. Likewise, it is a fantastic opportunity for the relaunch of the industry in France. But to see it as the “Swiss army knife” of ecological transition, to use Michael Liebreich’s word, makes no sense and exposes the massive funds allocated to it to disastrous use without any benefit for the climate.

In this regard, this week was rich in the promotion of another totem of ecological transition: the night train. There again, for those who love the world of rail – and the great-granddaughter of a railway worker that I am – the night train is a fascinating means of transport, which brings together the romantic imagination and a function of development of the territory as evidenced by the magnificent rail network that irrigated our territory, from towns to large urban centers, including small towns and medium-sized towns. However, the contribution of the night train to the reduction of transport emissions is epsilonesque: erecting it as a totem of ecological transition moves away from the real issues. Because who says totem says taboo. In this case, the taboo is called the road. However, the transport sector today accounts for nearly a quarter of global emissions according to the International Energy Agency, while between 1990 and 2017, only the transport and energy sectors saw their share in total emissions grow from 42 to 46% and 22 to 24% respectively.

In France, with buildings, mobility is the leading sector for greenhouse gas emissions, starting with road mobility. Decarbonizing the economy therefore involves decarbonizing the private car. The train and the bicycle certainly have a role to play, but in a country where, for ten years, two thirds of new urban dwellers have settled on the fringes of urban areas, in other words in areas which, for obvious budgetary reasons, will never be covered by public transport, decarbonizing the road is a must. Anyone who looks at a map of France, even more compared to neighboring countries, knows: France in 2021 is a country of roads. Decarbonizing mobility means both introducing technological innovations (electric, digital vehicles, etc.) and acting, in the longer term, on regional planning (where do we live? Where do we work? -us our races?), and understand social aspirations (Where would the French like to live?) while including them in a look without taboos on economic realities, in particular on the possibility of decentralizing job creation. Neither totem nor taboo, therefore, but a lucid observation of the obligatory passages of the ecological transition.

“Time is the web of which I am both the spider and the fly”. These words of the prospectivist, economist and humanist that was Jacques Lesourne, to whom, one year after his death, was paid, this week also, a beautiful homage in the walls of the Academy of technology, ring particularly true today. . They tell us that, in the face of the great challenges of the world, totemic thought exposes us to be the fly when systems thinking, and the arduous and patient conduct of the transitions that it involves, allows us to be the spider that weaves the canvas of the future.

Related title :
Cécile Maisonneuve: Totems and taboos of ecological transition
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