At an event in Bristol in September, 500 people gathered to discuss banking – but not as we know it. Talk of executive remuneration was replaced by discussions about environmental responsibility, as customers of Triodos Bank learnt first-hand what their money was doing to benefit society, the planet and culture.
This article originally appeared in The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2013.
As one of the oldest dedicated sustainable banks in the UK market, Triodos has become a formidable name not only in the UK, but in continental Europe. The Triodos Group as a whole increased its customer base by 40,000 in the first six months of 2013, meaning now nearly half a million people bank with it across Europe.
Headquartered in the Netherlands with branches in Belgium, Germany, Spain and the UK, the group made international profits of £25.1m in 2012, and in the first half of 2013, racked up £15.6m. Meanwhile, the UK bank specifically broke the £500m barrier in its lending to sustainable businesses and projects in March this year.
“Fundamentally, if you want to experience the power of your money, then we can give you a way of doing that”, says the bank’s charismatic UK chief executive Charles Middleton.
“What you’ll get extra with us is that while your money is with us, it will really be making things happen which I hope people feel really good about.”
The bank currently offers a wide range of products, from standard savings accounts, through to cash ISAs, equity ISAs, retail equity funds and direct investment opportunities. The missing piece in its current wares though is a current account – one of the most expensive and complex products for a bank to offer.
For some time, one of the charges levelled at the alternative sector is that there are simply too few day-to-day banking options available. However, at the event in Bristol – an annual general meeting for customers to connect with the projects they help finance – Middleton confirmed a rumour that had surfaced a few months before: Triodos has plans in place to launch a current account.
“When we made the announcement, there were resounding cheers from the floor which is always encouraging”, Middleton laughs.
“To be honest, though, we would expect that from that group of people. They are people who are very obviously supporting us in a very positive way. But there is broader evidence of that appetite, and I think it’s a natural progression for us.
“We feel confident that in any way people want to engage in the social or environmental sectors, they can do that through us. So it makes sense to launch a current account so that people can actually bank with us as well.”
Middleton, 56, spent 21 years at Barclays before joining Triodos in 2003. Not your average bank chief executive, he told Blue & Green Tomorrow in the 2012 edition of The Guide to Sustainable Banking that the bank’s mission and values were “absolutely aligned” with what he wanted to do after two decades in the mainstream banking arena.
Twelve months down the line since our last in-depth conversation, his former employers have turned somewhat of a corner, with new boss Antony Jenkins urging the bank’s 140,000 employees to quit if they didn’t sign up to its renewed ethical values.
“One should applaud that, and at the same time, challenge them to push that through so it really becomes real”, Middleton says of Barclays.
“There have been some indications of these banks trying to take their businesses forward in a direction that has more responsibility, that takes the whole issue of their presence in society more seriously, but let’s be honest, I think the jury is still very much out in terms of whether that’s really going to have the impact we want it to have.
“I would support any initiative that is going to help move these banks in the right direction, but I think it’s very early days in terms of how they really are. I’m an optimist; I think the banks have hit a seriously low point and it is shameful that the financial sector has got into this position.
“My sense is that we can’t get any lower, but we’ve been proved wrong on that before. What is really encouraging, though, is that there are definite signs of people making more conscious choices. That will not only help us, but it will also influence the banks to change.”
Triodos remains a kingpin of sustainable banking in the UK. Its current account is set to be launched at the back end of 2015 or in early 2016, and the bank has also recently unveiled a pair of ethical investment funds in an effort to widen its impact.
But why do people bank with Triodos? What are their motivations? One customer at its AGM recently told Blue & Green Tomorrow, “I feel it’s important that financial organisations have a beneficial impact on society rather than a detrimental one.” A simple explanation, and one that suggests banking – contrary to popular belief – does not have to be evil after all.
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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