“Mum, Dad, your pension is f***ing up my future.” That is the message of a new campaign, encouraging students to push their parents into asking their pension funds to assess the risks of climate change when investing their money.
The Push Your Parents movement offers a solution to concerned students, who with an often already small carbon footprint and little influence, feel powerless to confront the world’s biggest climate change contributors.
The organisers of the campaign identify major fossil fuel companies as one of these big contributors, who counter efforts to tackle climate change through the exploitation of the dirtiest fossil fuels, causing direct pollution, as well as lobbying against climate action.
But why do these companies act so destructively, asks Jonathan Erhardt, part of Push Your Parents campaign team. “Are they simply villains? It’s not because they find a particular pleasure in harming people, or at least not in most cases.”
Erhardt explains that such companies are driven by the short-term targets set by shareholders. Many of these shareholders are pension funds, acting on behalf of and investing for parents.
The Push Your Parents campaign has set out five demands with which parents should address their pension funds.
1. Assess the risks of climate change for their investments and the value of our pension
2. Reduce their exposure to the ‘carbon bubble’ by getting companies they are invested in to put an end to new or risky fossil fuel projects (e.g. tar sands, coal etc)
3. Increase their investments in low-carbon assets (e.g. renewable energy, cleantech etc)
4. Stop companies they are invested in from lobbying to block government action on climate change
5. Work with the Asset Owners Disclosure Project to improve their performance on climate change-related risks and opportunities
Parents must do this, Erhardt adds, “not just for the sake of their savings, but for the sake of our future, and the future of the people most affected by climate change.”
The process is easy. All parents must do is enter their details into the email template provided on the campaign website to begin the dialogue with their pension funds. The campaign organisers also ask that all responses are forwarded on to them, so they can help continue the conversation.
At a December launch event at Lincoln College’s EPA Science Centre, in the scholarly heart of Oxford, Push Your Parents invited a variety of speakers to make the case for such engagement with fossil fuel companies.
Prof Myles Allen, leader of the ECI Climate Research Programme and an author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explained, “For the sake of the future of the planet, there is a strong case for pension funds taking action, but there’s also quite a strong case just for the sake of your parent’s pensions.”
Allen argued that, in his opinion, the most important figure from the latest IPPC report was the one that told humanity must emit less than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon to keep global warming at less than the recommended threshold of 2C.
“Cumulative emissions to date are about half a trillion tonnes, so we’re slightly over half way to the trillion tonnes that would cause more than 2C of warming”, he said.
“What’s beautiful about this figure is that there’s so much that is so complicated about the climate problem, but we can hang on to these simple things.”
Allen lamented on “the strangeness, or insanity, of current energy policies”, observing that fossil fuel companies are valued according to assets they have laid claim to that are still in the ground; assets that cannot be burnt if the 1 trillion tonne limit is not to be exceeded.
“This is an issue for pension funds, because if we do carry on along this trajectory we’ll get to a point where we’ve spent all this money getting all this hard to find fossil carbon and then at that point decide we can’t afford to burn it because the conditions in the mid-century have really become intolerable, then all their money will have been wasted.”
But why should this responsibility fall on parents, and not, say, the government, to act?
“Governments won’t do anything unless we make them act”, said Dominic Roser, a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations.
“The responsibility falls back on us, to us as individuals, and in NGOs, companies, pension funds, universities, churches.There will be no government action if there is no general reorientation in the way we think about the climate problem.”
There are successful precedents for similar consumer pressure campaigns, said Raj Thamotheram, president of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets. Listing examples such as the pressure on food supply chains which saw the rise of the Fairtrade label, he added, “It’s easy for companies to explain change when they reference it to shareholders, as there’s no loss of face. But it’s rare. It’s actually much more common to sit and watch companies destroy themselves because they’re so obsessed with increasing the share price, which is what investors want.
“Only when something goes catastrophically wrong, say with BP and the Gulf of Mexico, do investors realise that actually safety is quite important.”
One of the main blocks to progress, Thamotheram said, is that when investors are riding a bubble – like the carbon bubble – they cannot afford to get off.
“In the institutional investment community, everyone on a Sunday afternoon knows it’s a bubble, but actually, you can’t do anything about it on a Monday morning without harming your own career prospects and your organisation’s prospects.”
The recently released Asset Owners Disclosure Project’s Global Climate Index found that 80% of asset owners were possibly exposing themselves to this carbon bubble by failing to manage climate change risks. The Environment Agency’s Active Pension Fund was among those rated highly for its approach.
“The key, actually, will come from outside […] from consumers”, Thamotheram continued.
“The outside shift to get investors to deal with systemic risk, like the carbon bubble, is going to come from consumers demanding that it be so.”
The financial case for action for members of defined contribution pension schemes – where the employer contributes a certain percentage and their involvement ends – is clear. “If you’re sitting on a carbon bubble its your problem.”
Thamotherham conceded that for such a movement to work, it would take a consumer movement “of the scale I don’t think we’ve ever seen.”
“But there are some of us in the system that really want this campaign to succeed”, he said.
There has been debate recently over the merits of investor engagement with polluters over outright divestment. Some argue that engagement is ineffective, but Antoine Thalmann, another of the campaign team, argued that it was perfectly suited to the role of pension funds.
For institutions with a moral leadership role, such as universities and churches, divestment is more appropriate, he said.
“Pension funds don’t have this leadership role; they are made of risk averse people who are not leaders generally. But I think they have more power than universities and churches, and they can have greater effect by engagement.”
The Carbon Tracker Initiative recommends that investors demand that companies stop investing in new fossil fuel projects and return cash to shareholders instead, in the form of dividends.
This allows the company to shrink and eventually disappear once its currently exploited reserves are depleted. The company would be forced to comply, Thalmann added, since its owners and shareholders hold the decision right. The panel of speakers agree that this course could work.
It is still early days for the Push Your Parents campaign, but its organisers are ambitious, with Thalmann saying, “We are definitely planning to spread it to other countries, we are already in touch with people in France, Brazil and Switzerland who are willing to create local chapters.”
With growing quantities of evidence showing that those who invest for the long-term reap better returns, it is not hard to imagine such an idea taking off.
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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