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Carbon politics: EU policy steriods and unsportsmanlike conduct



Gerald Kutney picks out some of the highlights from his upcoming book,Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, to be published by Routledge in January 2014. In this fourth of the series of five instalments, he provides an overview of the fourth chapter.

The most valuable player in the carbon game has been the European Union, which has led the world in stats on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, its exceptional performance is tainted as its reductions had little to do with climate change. In this section, we will uncover how the EU countries, playing in a league of their own, won the carbon game by subsidising their industries, thereby enhancing their own competitive position. Among these policy “steroids” are the feed-in tariff (FiT) and Emissions Trading System (ETS). 

A FiT encourages renewable power projects by providing long-term contracts at a premium over standard rates over a fixed period of time, usually in the range of 10 to 20 years. There are two basic FiT instruments which we will refer to as technology neutral and technology specific; the intent of the latter is to balance the economic disparity between the various renewable options.

Among the major renewable energy sources, solar energy is the least economic, so it gets the largest subsidies under a technology-specific FiT. At first glance, the technology-specific FiT appears to be an effective policy in fighting climate change, but there is a serious flaw. This apparent ‘success’ has come at a high cost as every taxpayer has been forced to support the solar industry.

The fiscal result is the most expensive emissions-reduction programs in the world. To ensure that everyone understands, the problem with this FiT program is not the subsidy over fossil fuels, but the subsidy for solar over other renewable energy sources. The end result is that taxpayers pay several times the carbon price for solar power but gain no further carbon reductions compared to other renewable energy sources.

A pioneering aspect of the EU climate change policy was the creation of the carbon market through the Emissions Trading System (ETS). The results show that the trading system of the ETS had been converted into a trading subsidy. This is accomplished by issuing more credits than there were emissions. In late 2011, the Swiss bank UBS issued a status report of the ETS by its investment research unit. Its analysis found that the €210 billion investment had “almost zero impact” on reducing carbon emissions; the ETS results were described as “embarrassing”.

The high-profile aspects of European climate change policy have been the FiT programs and the ETS. While officially being applied to reduce carbon emissions, the practical result is that they are economic subsidies to improve the competitive positions of domestic industries.  The “embarrassing” ETS results appear to be out of character for the EU which is popularly regarded as the champion of the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While there are problems with the FiT and ETS, the reduction in emissions of the EU, especially Germany, has led the latter to be viewed as the world leader in dealing with climate change. However, Germany had access to the “wall-fall” reductions.

On October 3 1990, Germany had been reunited. Many of the polluting and non-competitive heavy industries in the east were simply closed over the next few years, accounting for Germany’s major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during the first half of the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 1994, emissions from the former East Germany had fallen by 43%; the reductions more than compensated for rises in emissions in West Germany, where few initiatives had been launched to control them. Germany ratified Kyoto in 2002 and had not issued any major policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; yet, emissions in 2002 were already below 1990 (the Kyoto base year) by 18%.

Germany and the EU cannot be faulted for having easy emissions reductions. However, they can be criticised for deliberately attempting to force similar emissions reductions upon other developed nations that were not in such fortunate positions. Before and after Kyoto, the EU policy stated that other developed nations had to accept similar carbon reductions, which could only enhance their competitive positive; such actions at the expense of international co-operation, in the face of a global crisis, is unsportsmanlike and contrary to the spirit of the UNFCCC mandate.

In the last segment of this series on Chapter 5 of Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, we discuss the way forward to effectively combat climate change.

Gerald Kutney is managing director of Sixth Element Sustainable Management. His book, Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, is being published by Routledge in January 2014. Pre-order your copy here.

Further reading:

Carbon politics: ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the US and China

Carbon politics: foul ball in the 2010 season

Carbon politics: the gamesmanship of the Kyoto negotiations

Strong national action on climate change spurs on international agreements, says study

Climate change is ‘not a high priority for most politicians’


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By 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 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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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

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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