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NUS: how students are addressing unsustainable finance

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Backing fossil fuel divestment, founding credit unions and rejecting neoliberalism: some students are at the forefront of the search for truly sustainable finance, writes Piers Telemacque of the National Union of Students (NUS).

Since the crash of 2008, it’s become increasingly obvious that our financial system isn’t fit for purpose. It’s barely propping up an inherently unsustainable economy, driving the privatisation of public services, and leaving young people to clear up a mess that they didn’t create. But across the UK, more and more students are taking action to reform our tired neoliberal model, shaping a system which addresses the political, environmental and economic problems of the 21st century.

Some of the most obvious financial threats to global sustainability are the huge sums still tied up in fossil fuels. We know that we need to ensure that we don’t raise average temperatures by more than 2C to avoid the worst effects of climate change. To do this, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves can’t be burned. The facts of the situation completely subvert the business interests of fossil fuel companies, and so we need to make absolutely sure that the planet is put above profit. 

Divestment is an incredible campaign tactic in the financial sector, and a global momentum is building behind the campaign in opposition to the fossil fuel industry. Here at NUS, we proudly support the Fossil Free campaign, encouraging universities to pull their investments out of companies which are compromising the stability of our climate for young people across the world. You only need to look at the divestment campaign opposing apartheid in South Africa to see how effective finance can be as the grounds for direct action. It can be just as effective and successful again today. Get involved in your local area.

But it’s not enough to just say what we don’t want. We need to be actively exploring new solutions; fairer, more sustainable ways forward. It’s great to see examples of this right across the student movement, with progressive new ideas about economics springing up in students’ unions, lecture theatres, and student communities throughout the UK.

It’s clear to most people that neoliberal economics have widened inequalities and contributed to lots of social and environmental degradation over the last fifty years. But on far too many courses across the country, academics still teach the economics of the 20th century rather than the 21st. A growing number of students is challenging the content of their curriculums, demanding to be taught about alternative economic frameworks, which can help shape a fairer and more equitable society for all.

Student societies like Post-Crash Economics of the University of Manchester Students’ Union – our NUS Award winner for society of the year – are boldly encouraging new ways of thinking in their lecture theatres and seminar rooms. But we also see students coming together to put new ideas of economics into practical application rather than theoretical exploration, testing new models for fairer, more sustainable ways forward.

SOAS Students’ Union have recently succeeded in creating a model for a student-led credit union with the support of our Green Impact programme. A credit union is a non-profit co-operative whose members can withdraw loans at low interest rates, offering a more ethical alternative to mainstream banking. With its finance under the full control of its members, credit unions can use their money to invest in contributions to social good, such as the education sector. It’s an incredible example of using finance not just to be less bad, as with the divestment movement, but to actually do more good: using financial systems to contribute to social and environmental responsibility, and making a positive impact on the local community. 

You can take a localised approach to finance even further, and that’s what we’re seeing at FXU Students’ Union, who recently launched their own currency as part of one of our Students’ Green Fund projects. The currency can be spent with a number of local, independent businesses, all of which with sustainability built into their business model. It’s a great way of reconnecting consumption with production in a globalised market, providing a boost to the local economy, and allowing communities to use their money to contribute to social good rather than environmental destruction. It’s another constructive way of decentralising financial power. 

We don’t claim to have all the answers to our complex financial challenges. We only need to look at the hubristic mess of the last fifty years to see what happens when we dogmatically stick to some economic ideology. But what’s clear is that we at least need to be trying new things, rather than continuing down the neoliberal path of globalisation, privatisation and an endless pursuit of economic growth. We have huge social, political and environmental challenges facing us in the century ahead, and I’m proud to be part of a student movement which is so passionate about finding ways to build a genuinely sustainable economy.

Piers Telemacque is NUS vice president for society and citizenship. NUS promotes, defends and extends the rights of 7 million students, shaping education to create a fairer and more prosperous society for everyone. Piers leads NUS’ ground breaking sustainability work as part of representing students as citizens in wider society and their local communities.

Further reading:

NUS celebrates impact of students’ sustainability fund

Student-led fund proves socially responsible investing can be profitable

Go Green Week: UK students launch week-long divestment campaign

Students call on UK universities to move money away from fossil fuels

25 universities to share £5m for green projects – as A-level results are revealed

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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