Jeremy Leggett is a leading advocate of clean energy. At a recent Forum for the Future event, he gave an impassioned call to arms for renewables. His latest book is The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance.
A former award-winning geologist, Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury and its sister foundation SolarAid, and chairs the Carbon Tracker Initiative. He is also an associate fellow of Oxford University’s respected Environmental Change Institute. His transition from oil and gas consultant and researcher (funded by BP and Royal Dutch Shell) to renewables champion was triggered by his growing concern about global warming. This is someone who knows about both the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries.
Leggett was introduced by co-founder of the Forum, Sara Parkin, who described The Energy of Nations as a “page turner”. What followed was Leggett’s explanation of the five systemic risks that he covers in the book.
The oil shock is the increasing mismatch between inexorably rising demand for oil and its peaking (increasingly scarce) supply.
The climate shock is the ruinous economic and environmental effects of rising greenhouse gases and climate change from burning fossil fuels (a Royal Dutch Shell-shock).
Third is the coming financial crash, well-explained by serious economist and elder statesman of the Financial Times, Martin Wolf.
The fourth risk is the carbon bubble, exposed by Carbon Tracker, which systematically proved that many oil and gas companies were overvalued on reserves they simply could not burn.
Finally, Leggett punctured the dream of limitless, clean shale gas as a panacea. It is neither limitless nor clean, he said – as shale wells run dry, emissions still rise and the remaining blighted landscape looks like a heroin addict’s arm.
Divestment from fossil fuels is rampant, with some of the largest pension and sovereign wealth funds recognising the risk and putting their money elsewhere. The challenge is where to invest.
As one of the leading champions of solar energy, it would have been remiss for him not to point the continuing fall in price of renewable energy. The cost of solar panels has fallen approximately 100 times over since 1977, and solar panels today are about half the price they were in 2008. Parity with fossil fuels is here.
Most interesting about Leggett’s talk was his use of military analogies. To paraphrase, he said, “We are at war… they [the fossil fuel industry] are trying to kill us… We need guerrilla warfare.” Some may find such language off-putting. Sun Tzu’s Art of War and von Clausewitz’s Vom Kreige (On War) are essential texts for most business students, so as a business school alumnus maybe I’m biased, but the language certainly seems appropriate in the circumstances.
In 1914 and 1939, the world mobilised to face an existential threat. There can be no greater threat than climate change, even if it doesn’t come ready packaged with jackboots and a foreign language. We are fighting for our lives.
Arrayed against those who are genuinely concerned about the state of the planet are the machismo mining, drilling and investing sectors. As Cicero said, endless money forms the sinews of war, and the oil and gas industry has that. Just as the tobacco industry before and the slavery industry before that, the fossil fuel industry will do everything it can to defend the indefensible.
Leggett explored the psychology of oil and gas executives hooked on their own myths and propaganda: we’re entering a renaissance for fossil fuels, there isn’t a climate problem, if there is a problem it’s manageable and if it’s not manageable, we’ll find an easy technical solution.
Interestingly, some of those most critical of the industry are those who have recently retired, such as Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. This suggests big oil and gas executives feel they cannot criticise the industry while in post or are suffering from some groupthink.
If the first duty of a government is to keep its people safe, then the extreme weather resulting from climate change driven by burning fossil fuels needs to be addressed urgently.
Entertaining as it was disturbing, Leggett’s thesis is compelling. We face an existential threat and we need more people to enlist to fight this war. Reading his book would be a good place to start.
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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