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20 questions with… Sarah Butler-Sloss

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Sarah Butler-Sloss answers 20 questions on life, sustainability and everything.

An internationally recognised leader in the field of renewable energy for the past two decades, she is best known as the founder of the Ashden Awards.

Running since 2001, the event celebrates innovation and leadership in sustainable energy, and in that time has helped more than 140 pioneers develop their work.

It takes place for a 14th year at the Royal Geographical Society, London, next week.

We want the world to be as blue and green tomorrow as it was yesterday. What’s your mission?

To help bring sustainable energy to a billion more people across the globe by 2020.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An intrepid explorer of the natural world!

How would your friends describe you?

Passionate and thoughtful.

What was your ‘road to Damascus moment’ in terms of sustainability?

In 2000, I was visiting homes and schools across Kenya and saw the appalling conditions that women were cooking in. The rooms they called kitchens were filled with smoke as they cooked on open fires. The smoke was choking the women, and they complained of terrible coughs and eye problems. A straightforward, fuel efficient smoke-free stove could change all this, saving lives and trees. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t everywhere!

Who or what inspires you?

David Attenborough, Jonathon Porritt, Amory Lovins and all of Ashden’s inspirational winners – they are all amazing people doing amazing work to make the world a better place.

What really grinds your gears?

Climate change deniers.

Describe your perfect day.

Being in a beautiful place on a sunny day with my family and some close friends with good food, good wine and the sea very nearby.

What do you see when you look out your window at home?

A big beautiful ash tree and the back of some flats.

What do you like spending your money on?

Holidays with my family in beautiful places, and clean energy.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?

The Greek Islands.

What’s your favourite book?

I love beautiful landscape and books of photos so I’m going to choose The Earth from the Air by Yann Arthus Bertrand.

What’s your favourite film?

So difficult to choose – The World of ApuGandhiWitness, Out of Africa, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It depends on my mood.

You’re made prime minister. What’s the first thing you do?

I’d make every home in the UK energy efficient with insulation and energy efficient boilers. It would eradicate fuel poverty, reduce people’s energy bills and dramatically cut UK carbon emissions, as well as creating lots of jobs.

If you were stuck on a desert island, which famous person would you like to be stuck with and why?

David Attenborough. We could explore the island and he could tell me about all the fascinating wildlife.

What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given? And the worst?

The best advice I ever had was never be afraid to question the status quo. I don’t remember the worst advice.

What would you like to be doing five years from now?

To do more of the doing rather than the rewarding and talking.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not to have had more time with my gorgeous children.

What one thing would you encourage readers to do to make their life more sustainable?

Insulate your home as much as possible and enjoy walking and cycling.

What’s the one idea that you think could change the world for the better?

Cheap solar photovoltaic (PV), combined with cheap energy storage.

What’s your favourite quote?

I find hope in the darkest of days and focus on the brightest” – Dalai Lama.

Sarah Butler-Sloss is founder-director of Ashden, a London-based charity that works in the field of sustainable energy and development and hosts the Ashden Awards annually. The 2014 event will be held at the Royal Geographical Society on Thursday May 22. Read more about the finalists here.

Further reading:

‘Sustainable energy champions’ announced as Ashden Award finalists

The latest IPCC report: it’s time to ramp up mitigation efforts

What we should really be doing about rising energy bills

Community energy projects need ‘support at all levels’ to flourish

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

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.

Driver Reduction?

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

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.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

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.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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