Raj Singh answers 20 questions on life, sustainability and everything.
A freelance writer on sustainable investment and CSR, blogging at www.esginsider.com, Singh was previously programme director at the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF), and a senior ESG analyst at ECPI.
He also worked for a boutique PR and IR consultancy, on behalf of cleantech companies and investors, and had a stint as a journalist at a local newspaper in West London.
We want the world to be as blue and green tomorrow as it was yesterday. What’s your mission?
To live in a world where our economic models strive to minimise environmental degradation and human suffering, whilst maximising the long-term sustainability of natural resources. That, and to commission the next series of Blackadder.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to work for the WWF. Not the charity, mind, but the World Wrestling Federation. I wanted to be a wrestler. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I became obsessed with genetics and environmental conservation.
How would your friends describe you?
I’m not sure – you’d have to ask them. I’d like to think it’s: “positive, affable, generous and conscientious”, but I doubt that’s the case. They’re committed liars.
What was your ‘road to Damascus moment’ in terms of sustainability?
I’ve been concerned with environmental issues since I was a child, especially the lives of animals and plants. I would build houses and hutches for stray animals in case they wandered into our tiny West London garden. But I think it was opening a physics textbook as a teenager and seeing a picture and description of a prototype hydrogen fuel cell-powered car. This was in the late-90s. I went stark raving mad for a while and was preaching the gospel of carbon-free transport for weeks.
Who or what inspires you?
Everyone, really. Sounds corny, but we’re all intrinsically linked to one another’s wellbeing. My neighbours’ worries and issues are my own; I feel it’s important to keep in touch with local issues and people in your area who stand up against a slight or injustice. The natural world and cosmos inspire a fair bit of awe. It’s always refreshing to look up into the night sky and contemplate one’s accelerating insignificance.
What really grinds your gears?
The stalwarts in industry (financial services and beyond) who don’t see the added value of integrating sustainability issues in their business models. Oh, and those two blokes from the 118 118 adverts.
Describe your perfect day.
This may sound pedestrian to some, but it would involve hiking, lots of food and wine, and a party overlooking a lake with all of my friends. Basically a scene from one of the Northern Italian lakeside towns.
What do you see when you look out your window at home?
Like a lot of urban London it’s unfortunately rather grey; a long row of pre-war terraced houses, nearly all bought-to-let. There’s a nice tree opposite housing a family of sparrows and at least one grey squirrel, whom I’ve named Ivan. It’s refreshing to see everyone’s waste sorted for recycling before collection day; rewind the same scene by about 15 years and it was just piles of black bags going straight to landfill.
What do you like spending your money on?
Simple things, really: beer, food, books, music, film, puppets… I’m taking puppetry lessons and have started an admittedly creepy collection of marionettes. I thought it would make my place look debonair, but on reflection it looks a little unnerving.
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
Sicily. I lived in Italy for a couple of years and Sicily was a treat. The food, the wine, the sun, the food again… The great thing about living in Italy is the fantastically cheap and efficient rail service. I saw most of Italy in two years but have only seen a small fraction of the UK in the rest of my adult life. The cost of travelling around the UK is prohibitive for most.
What’s your favourite book?
I can’t possibly choose between the holy trinity: Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa and Mysteries by Knut Hamsun (horrible wretch of a human being, though he was).
What’s your favourite film?
Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman.
You’re made prime minister. What’s the first thing you do?
Convene a sort of UN-esque gathering of world leaders and somehow make them all agree on worldwide mandatory carbon caps. It’s utterly delusional, but it would take something that radical and transformative to force a lot of industry to change.
If you were stuck on a desert island, which famous person would you like to be stuck with and why?
Alive? David Lynch, probably. He seems like a nice, well-mannered sort of guy. Dead? It would have to be Genghis Khan, just to ask how he managed to amass the biggest empire the world has ever known. And all while riding on those tiny Mongolian horses.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given? And the worst?
“Pick your battles” is my favourite, from a good old friend. The worst was, “Go on Raj, smack him on the bonce”, in the schoolyard tussle that preceded it.
What would you like to be doing five years from now?
Fulfilling my mission; not just focusing on large institutions but also everyday people and their advisers. How can I help shape a long-term focused economy? This is a question I want everyone asking themselves, companies and their MPs.
What’s your biggest regret?
Not seeing more of the UK, as I mentioned earlier. That, and never being taught philosophy and Latin in school.
What one thing would you encourage readers to do to make their life more sustainable?
The first thing is to broaden one’s view on how you’re plugged in to the economy. If you have a pension, you’re an investor, not just a consumer! And as any investor, you have the ability to challenge companies on how they’re protecting your investments. You don’t just have a stake in their financial success but crucial stakes in a thriving, healthy natural environment and engaged citizenry. There are financial institutions and advisers out there who are experts at engaging with companies on your behalf – ask your current provider questions, or visit the UKSIF or Ethical Investment Association websites to find out more.
What’s the one idea that you think could change the world for the better?
Energy storage! The holy grail of renewables. Whoever cracks commercially-feasible, affordable and scalable energy storage will turn the power generation game on its head.
What’s your favourite quote?
The purported Spartan response when a Macedonian King declared, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever!” They replied, simply, with one word: “If.”
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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