Once seen as the leading ethical banking option, the Co-operative Bank has endured a tough 12 months after financing problems led to it unveiling a £1.5 billion rescue plan. It was recently revealed it was set to give majority control to two US hedge funds. Nicky Stubbs looks back at its difficulties, and asks what they might mean for its future.
This article originally appeared in The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2013.
It was April 2013 when it emerged that the Co-operative Bank had come into financial difficulties. A deal to purchase 632 Lloyds branches – which would have increased its market share from 1% to 7% – fell through, leading many to question why.
The collapse of the deal owes its origins to the Co-op’s 2009 acquisition of Britannia Building Society, and along with it, the bad debts accumulated by Britannia. The complexities that are so defining of the banking system mean that however fiscally disciplined one bank may be, it is not immune to the problems that exist outside its own walls.
As a result, the Co-operative encountered a £1.5 billion shortfall in its balance sheet. To plug the hole, shares were made available for commercial investors – for the first time in its 141-year history.
The process of diversifying a co-operative creates a contradiction in values when one considers that a mutually-owned organisation is, by definition, owned by its consumers. This contrasts with a traditional capitalist system. The Co-op has long prided itself on political and economic independence, but will a shareholder-based system allow for continued strong ethical values within the organisation?
Euan Sutherland, CEO of overarching Co-op Group, insisted at the time that its focus on ethical banking would continue, telling the BBC back in June, “[There is] no change to our ethos or the way we run our bank.”
These assertions were also supported by other professionals, including Martin Shaw, chief executive of the Association of Financial Mutuals, who said that customers would not notice any difference in the way things were being run.
Theoretically, the Co-operative Bank does not exist as a co-operative in its purest form – that is, with direct consumer ownership – due to a lack of clarity in British regulation. Whilst other European countries enjoy a system where the assets are commonly owned by members, UK banks exist officially as a company in their own right. This is owned by members, through a system of profit sharing.
In an article written around the time of the Lloyds deal collapse, Ed Mayo, secretary-general of trade body Co-operatives UK, set out the basic formulation of a co-operative.
“What starts as one form of enterprise can change”, he said.
“Some co-operatives begin as 100% member owned, and then diversify, offering shares to investor-owners. This applies mainly to farmer co-ops, but also, internationally, to some others needing large investments, such as telecoms and insurance co-operatives.”
The Co-operative Bank is defined by these terms, and the diversification of the bank was certainly a necessity so that it could continue its work, which customers have been promised will not differ.
Mayo continued, “While member ownership is obscured it still exists in a pure form behind the business. Sometimes investors are brought into direct ownership, and here the business can still be seen as member-owned if members retain more than 50% of the equity. However, there are doubts as to whether in practice members can exert enough influence to be said to be still in control.”
So as long as a bank retains that system throughout at least 51% of the company, it is, by definition, a co-operative, where the interests of its members come first. The Co-op’s co-operative status became a bit hazy when the bank revealed a large proportion of its assets would be in the hands of outside investors.
Although there may have to be some form of compromise in governance, its executives certainly need to continue to advocate ethical practices. And with strong governance, the Co-operative Bank can continue to serve its customers and the wider community in which it operates.
The next 12 months will therefore be crucial in the future of the Co-op. The industry and society will be severely let down if it fails to maintain the ethical leadership it has displayed over the past few decades.
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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