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Fair energy pricing and clear policies the key to boosting green growth

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Yvo de Boer, director general of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and former executive secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), talks to Blue & Green Tomorrow about the obstacles that are keeping both developing countries and the west from a low-carbon revolution.

Former global chairman of Climate Change and Sustainability Services at KPMG and UN’s climate secretary from 2006 to 2010, De Boer was able to gather political leaders at Copenhagen’s climate summit in 2009, where civil groups and NGOs rallied to demand strong commitment to curb climate change.

De Boer, now the director general of the Global Green Growth Institute, an organisation supporting developing countries to promote sustainable economic growth, speaks to Ilaria Bertini about the clean energy transition in Europe and in developing countries.

What are the main challenges that are preventing developing countries from achieving green growth?

The first is that many developing countries are inclined to follow the economic growth model of  industrialisation of the West, because they have seen how it has worked for us. Secondly, many of them do not have the institutional or analytical capacity to understand how a different and more sustainable model of economic growth could be attractive for their country. A third aspect for many, but not all, developing countries is that the base of their economy is to sell natural resources, from minerals to wood or agricultural products, to other countries, so their economy is highly dependent on exports. This is why we as an institution help countries to understand where or how a more sustainable model can be attractive to them and to build the institutional capacity that allows them to assess what would be in their interest.

The UN has made clear that in order to keep global warming under the 2C threshold, investment in clean energy must rise dramatically. Whilst we have seen improvements, investment is still not growing fast enough. Why do you think that is and what can be done to accelerate the low carbon-transition?

I think in many countries – including many European ones – there is a lack of willingness to recognise the real cost of fossil fuels-based energy. Energy is not priced to reflect the environmental damage it causes and this reflects on the support available to renewables as well. Often people talk about the way renewable energy is subsidised, but fail to say fossil fuel energy is not properly priced to include its environmental cost. In addition, countries’ regulation sometimes becomes an obstacle to clean energy, as happened in Spain after the 2008 crisis, when the government removed special tariffs for renewable energy, causing unpredictability and uncertainty to the private sector and investors. These are three things that would help the transition: public awareness, proper pricing and clear policy framework.

What are your thoughts on the European energy policy and the rise of the so-called ‘bridge fuel’, shale gas, in the US and in Europe?

Although energy markets are very much integrated and globalised, energy policy is not. For example because of the discovery of shale gas reserves in the US, the price of coal has dropped dramatically and a number of countries in Europe are turning to coal instead of gas. This is an example of how the global energy market is more integrated but at the same time it is not really: energy policy is left in the hands of single member states and we do not have a pan-European energy policy or power grid. I think the fragmentation of energy policy in Europe is holding back a lot of innovation.

Recent tensions between the EU and Russia have sparked fears over gas supply. Do you think it is time to look at alternatives?

I would say in a way there is a positive relationship between energy security on the one side and action on climate change on the other, because in order to become less dependent on Russian gas, countries are looking more favourably at renewable energy at home as an alternative.

Thursday was World Food Day, with a focus on family farming. What is the role of agriculture in promoting a green economy in developing countries?

Half of global food supply comes from small-scale farmers, so it is very important to recognise their importance and the role of this activity in creating job opportunities, especially outside cities and urban areas. We know a relationship exists between a number of global issues  – climate change, energy, food and water – which are strongly connected, although often seen as separate problems.

What do you expect from next year’s climate summit in Paris? What needs to be done differently from Copenhagen?

I think many countries recognise they cannot afford to have the same kind of outcome from Paris as from Copenhagen and they know that much stronger action is needed. Politically, I think the situation is more positive.

Further reading:

Oxfam: inaction and financial short-termism putting millions at climate change risk

EU leaders to set October deadline for 2030 climate goals

Leading institutional investors call for ambitious climate deal

Sustainable Development Goals need to consider poverty and climate change

Tackling climate change could address economic and social challenges, says report

 

 

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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