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Pension headache: why we need our funds to go on a fossil fuel diet

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David Powell, economics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, on asking investors awkward questions about the urgency of climate change, in an effort to start doing things differently.

There used to be a massive problem with pigeons in Trafalgar Square. There isn’t really today. Pigeon numbers are way down. The solution?

After experimenting with measures like hawks to scare the pigeons away, in the end the answer wasn’t to do anything about the pigeons at all, but do something about the people. It became an offence to feed the pigeons. And bang – just like that – pigeon numbers dropped off sharply*.

The moral of the story is this. If you want to deal with something troublesome, sometimes you need to cut off its food supply.

There are fewer more troublesome problems than climate change. Most pressingly, what we actually do about it. In turn, how we can prevent ourselves burning most of the fossil fuels that we know are out there: it’s not easy.

We need to do something about the food supply to the fossil fuel industry: money

The fossil fuel industry is big bucks. It is absurdly profitable. Fossil fuel extraction is a licence to dig up an intensively energy rich, and unfortunately all-too-abundant natural resource, and sell it for vast wodges of cash (this is just one reason why the industry should be taxed to the hilt, and not given generous tax breaks to encourage them to dig more and more).

And it is a cash cow industry for investors. Significant amounts of our pension funds – to take just one investment type – are tied up in coal, oil and gas. This is intensely problematic, for two reasons. First, it means an awful lot of people, industries and big capital have a more or less direct stake in the ongoing health of the fossil fuel industry, creating a massive bloc that stands to lose an awful lot if the world enforces tough carbon caps.

Compelling analysis by Carbon Tracker shows that even for a modest chance of avoiding a 2C temperature rise, we need to leave in the ground 80% of the fossil fuels proved to be in company’s reserves. Never mind prospecting for more, be that from the likes of shale gas or more ‘conventional’ sources.

Second, the flip side is if one day the world does indeed clamp down on the merry burning of climate changing fuels, many ordinary pension holders could stand to lose out big time as the industry’s valuation tumbles.

But this second problem could, I think, also be a critical part of the solution.

How can we get the money out of fossil fuels?

To my mind there are broadly two things we need to focus on.

1. Tough, committed, long-term and authoritative action from governments. This is about international agreements that end up with the adoption of a global carbon budget, as the recent IPCC report proposed, allocated fairly across nations. It is about a throng of domestic leadership sending the right signals on future carbon acceptability to investors, and stamping out global fossil fuel subsidies. Ultimately keeping global temperature rises down will need political leadership. But as we have repeatedly seen, that leadership is not necessarily forthcoming, not least because of the financial power and tendrils of the fossil fuel industry as I mentioned earlier. Which leads to…

2. The ultimate holders of financial capital – us – getting much more active and interested in what the money we put into pension funds and banks does.  The main reason so many pension funds are invested in climate changing industries is that they don’t get enough people telling them not to. We need to cut off the food supply to these bloated, belching companies.

Last week, ShareAction launched their new campaign, Green Light. It is supported by Friends of the Earth and other environmental NGOs, together with unions and faith groups.  The campaign is about mobilising huge numbers of pension fund holders – you and me – to start asking their pension fund exactly what happens to the money we give them. At the moment, most people don’t know. Shocking when you think that that’s the money we depend upon come retirement.

At the Green Light launch, we heard Paul Todd, head of investment policy at Nest, wonder what world their youngest investor (aged 16) would be retiring in to – and what impacts the financial fallout of climate change would have on her pension.

Green Light will get people and funds asking awkward questions, getting the urgency of climate change firmly on the investors’ radars, and demanding that they start doing things differently.

And while the campaign comes from the same place as the important divestment movement headed by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, the campaign will focus not just on getting funds to reduce their investments in oil and gas but also in empowering pension holders and the fund management industry to become an active part of the global clarion call for political leadership that we so urgently need – rather than being complicit in its absence.

I have long maintained that the two most important things an individual can do about climate change is get active politically and think really hard about where they put their money. Financial institutions will, in the final analysis, ultimately have to respond to sufficient pressure to do things differently.

* This train of thought was prompted by the excellent recent edition of Costing the Earth that looked at the relationship between man and urban animals.

David Powell is an economics campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Further reading:

Pensions minister: investors who see climate risks have ‘competitive advantage’

Prince Charles: pensions industry ‘has a duty’ to be sustainable

Investors worth $3tn put pressure on fossil fuels industry to rethink future

Climate change a ‘firmly established’ material risk for mainstream investors

The Guide to Climate Change 2013

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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