Joanne Perry

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight?”

With such powerful language did 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg reproach world leaders at the UN’s Climate Action Summit last month. Thunberg, who had taken care not to fly to the event, said the “popular idea” of halving global emissions in the next ten years would provide only a 50% chance of keeping global temperatures at a level which would avoid setting off “irreversible chain reactions beyond human control”. 

Fifty per cent was “unacceptable”, she declared, to young people like herself, who will “have to live with the consequences” of a failure by the current generation of decision-makers to address climate change. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions?” Thunberg thundered.

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you.”

The ferocity of the pink-cheeked teenager provoked a tidal wave of reactions, ranging from derogatory remarks to admiration for her message and her precocity, and mischievous delight at the “death stare” she gave US president Donald Trump, a climate change denier who withdrew his country from the Paris climate accord in 2017.

I have a few observations myself. One: a hectoring tone rarely helps to bring people on side, especially when you are the smallest person in the room. Two: it is true that government and business could have done more (and still should) to tackle emissions and rising global temperatures. Three: things are much easier said than done.

Taking the example of electric vehicles (EVs), a key topic at our own recent conference in the US, AL Global Detroit (for the report click here), all major OEMs now have electrification programmes, significant sums of money are being invested, and a number of manufacturers have committed to a 100% electrified line-up in the near future. Moreover, new EV manufacturers are cropping up at an impressive rate, especially in China.

So why aren’t the roads swarming with EVs? Because free markets are driven by certain principles, not least consumer demand – and people will not choose a product they feel is more expensive and less reliable than what they already have.

In Detroit, analyst company PWC shared figures on the overall slowdown in US vehicle sales and the stagnation of EV sales there. Total sales are predicted to retract during the next three years, falling from 16.9m this year to 15.9m by 2021. Meanwhile, electric and hybrid sales in the US take just 1.5% of the market, and gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks are on an upward trend.

There is a disconnect, then, between what is politically and culturally ‘desirable’ and what is actually happening in the market. And that is giving the automotive industry a big headache.

“[The industry] is continuing to invest heavily in next-generation technologies, but if the return on investment is further out, what does that look like for the bottom line?” asked Brandon Mason, automotive director and mobility leader at PWC.

He said OEMs are faced with trying to bridge the gap of lower profitability before the market returns and the price of EVs reaches parity with conventional vehicles – and that not all businesses will survive years of investment and the struggle towards a greener future.

“The companies that are making big bets [on new technologies] and don’t have the runway will go bankrupt or get bought up by others,” Mason stated. “The landscape is getting increasingly competitive and not everyone has the resources.”

So, while it’s important to push for progress – for all our sakes – it is no good ignoring the business realities and personal practicalities that lie behind the ideal. We can’t all commandeer a zero-carbon yacht, as Thunberg did.