Evan Davis’s excellent two-part documentary, Mind the Gap: London v the Rest, which concluded on Monday night, explored the growing economic gap between London and the rest of the UK – an economic gap that is accelerating.
The swooping shots of London’s skyline felt like an extended introduction to The Apprentice (cue Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights) and Davis’s enthusiastic presenting style were mixed with some whizzy graphics as he stood silently on travelators, looking into the middle distance. However, the two programmes made several serious points.
In the first programme, Davis explained how London’s economy was growing far faster than the rest of the UK. He didn’t mention that this renders meaningless all UK average economic indicators. There is a London rate of growth, GDP, inflation and unemployment, and there is a non-London rate.
As a global city, London is pulling in investment and talent from the rest of the UK and from around the world. It has a greater share of graduates than anywhere else in the UK and is growing by 1,000 people (a tube train’s worth) per week.
Feeding this machine consumes almost all of the available infrastructure investment, depriving the UK’s other cities and towns of much needed cash that would help them grow. London has 10 times the spending per head on infrastructure with Crossrail 1, upgrades to the tube and mainline stations, the need for new runways and the growing need for Crossrail 2.
This success of London is due to ‘agglomeration’ – a dismal economic term for the benefit firms secure by locating near each other. A city the size of London is more effective than two cities half the size because there are so many companies agglomerating.
There is unique network of technology, creativity and finance in London. Entrepreneurship, talent and money fuse to create a powerful hub. Specifically, this is happening around Old Street (Silicon Roundabout/Tech City), King’s Cross (new Google HQ, UAL Central St Martins, St Pancras International) and the new developments around Battersea Power Station (US Embassy and the eponymous lump of red brick and four white towers).
That London is also the media, political and cultural heavyweight simply accelerates this virtuous cycle of growth. But virtuous for who?
The second programme dealt with ‘the rest’. This is where the programme got really interesting. Most people in the UK see London’s success as a positive thing for UK plc, laying to rest the myth that there is a seething mass of resentment outside the M25. It was clear that what those outside London wanted was for their communities to succeed, not at London’s expense but in spite of it.
An example of this was the success of the British cycling team, which was due in no small part to the creation of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester. An agglomeration of cyclists and coaches, creating a virtuous (bi)cycle.
Davis then roamed around the ‘desolate north’, in particular the estates of Liverpool, exploring its industrial growth and post-industrial decline, with a detour to see Ringo Starr’s birthplace.
At this point, the programme took an interesting and lateral turn, when Davis visited Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, the world’s fourth funkiest town.
After the decline of the wool and clog mill industries, it looked like it would suffer the fate of so many northern towns. But growth in nearby Manchester and Leeds created a commuter belt where people could live among the green hills of Hebden Bridge, but work in these vibrant cities.
It was neatly described by one contributor as an inverse city with green belt at its centre and nice “suburbs” such as Manchester (1:11hrs), Leeds (1hr), Liverpool (1:50hrs) and Sheffield (1:36hrs). All those travel times are based on the current poor road infrastructure and appalling east-west rail links.
This is an interesting thought. The UK’s problem is not that London is too big, but that its next tier of cities are too small.
Creating a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles or Bosnywash (Boston-New York-Washington) with excellent high speed transport links between Hull or Sheffield in the east and Liverpool in the west, connecting them through Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Doncaster could create an 8.8m population counterweight to London’s 9.8m dominance.
Couldn’t HS2 link our two cities of culture, Hull and Liverpool? North-south connections are already very good; it is in travelling east-west that we struggle.
If London can lead the media technology revolution and be our financial capital, could not this central England conurbation, with major ports at either end, lead the clean technology revolution, specifically offshore wind, wave, tidal and ocean thermal? Could it be our industrial capital, as it always used to be?
As an ‘out there’ suggestion, an English parliament could sit in this central belt, in funky Hebden Bridge, although an influx of politicians and media-types would probably wreck the place.
Which leaves me with the only criticism to be made of Davis’s series. It was very England-centric, which is surprising considering Scotland is to have an independence referendum in six months, and the name Evan Davis smacks of some Welsh heritage. What about Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Swansea?
We needed a third programme to see what other countries are doing. Scotland manages to have Edinburgh (495,000 people), Glasgow (591,000), Dundee (147,000) and Aberdeen (147,000) as successful, more equal cities.
While obviously much larger, the US has six of the top 20 global cities by GDP, according to the most recent analysis by the Brookings Institute in 2012. Japan, a narrow island like us, manages three. Germany manages a much more distributed economy, with politics centred on Berlin, economic activity centred on the Rhine-Rhur region and beer drinking on Munich. History and federal structures help explain Germany and the US, but this isn’t the case in Japan.
You can distribute economic activity if you want to and still be a global leader. China and India will have many megacities, only one of which in each will be the capital.
Davis ended his series, standing outside the glorious gothic St Pancras, with a proposed deal. He said the rest of the UK would not resent London’s success (they don’t), if London won’t resent the rest of the UK finally getting its fair share of investment.
And there’s the rub. London sees it’s peers as New York, Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and has little interest in the ‘desolate’ north, with their funny accents and quaint customs.
That said, closing the gap is essential if we want a truly United Kingdom, and would be possible if we had the political and industrial vision and confidence of the Victorians to do so.
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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