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Sustainable banking: people want ‘to know what’s being done with their money’

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Paul Ellis, chief executive of Ecology Building Society, brings Blue & Green Tomorrow up to speed on all things Ecology, sustainability, finance and banking.

This article originally appeared in The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2013. 

Talk us through the last 12 months or so at Ecology.

We’ve continued to make good financial progress. We’ve had continued growth, continued profitability, and again, low levels of arrears and losses. So we feel we’re coming through the financial crisis in pretty good shape.

We’ve been recruiting across the business as we look to take ourselves onto the next level. And we recognise there is still a lot to do within our main objectives, in terms of promoting energy efficiency in our general housing stock, and our other strands such as taking more active roles in affordable housing.

We’ve been involved in the launch of the Empty Homes initiative, the National Empty Homes Loans Fund. It’s very much at a pilot stage, and there’ll be some learning and refining  as we go forward, but we’re certainly very  excited to be involved.

Institutionally, we’ve joined the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) which is a major international network of sustainable banks. This will enable us to connect with those banks that are intent on moving banking to a place where it fulfils its proper role of financing the real economy and the needs of communities and ordinary people.

Is moving to an alternative bank like Ecology more attractive than a year ago?

I don’t think any of the reasons why people have been minded to move have gone away. I don’t think there has been fundamental reform in our banking sector. There are various policy signs to suggest the problems are being recognised and we’ve seen a greater emphasis on better conduct from the regulators, particularly the Financial Conduct Authority, but I don’t think the mindset has changed.

Without the institutional reform, many of these initiatives will be doomed to failure and will be unable to achieve their full potential. That’s quite worrying.

Paul Ellis, chief executive of Ecology Building Society

More specifically, we’re disappointed in the events at the Co-operative Bank, which haven’t done the sector any favours. Fortunately, it appears that people understand that this is not a reflection on ethical banking generally speaking. This is perhaps a chance for those banks and other finance institutions like ourselves who really are committed to these principles to articulate our values and to demonstrate their practical application. The work we’re doing with the GABV again reinforces this.

One big gripe among many individuals is the lack of options available for alternative, ethical or sustainable current accounts. Can Ecology address this?

It’s very possible that you will see, in the relative short-term, a number of mutuals coming forward with sustainable current account options. That’s not to underestimate the amount of work that’s needed to actually achieve this, because the way the industry is structured means there are very high hurdles to overcome. But there’s a determination amongst a number of organisations, including ourselves, to make those options more widely available.

Ecology was named Company of the Year and Financier of the Year at the New Energy & Cleantech Awards 2013. What did those accolades mean to you?

They’re an endorsement of what we’ve been trying to do over a long period of time: to help create a market in this area, and to demonstrate long-term commitment to the renewables sector, within the overall framework of a need to improve the energy efficiency of our homes, and the whole way in which we deliver energy in terms of its environmental impact.

Why do people move to Ecology?

People who move to Ecology understand that we’ve got a good financial track record over many years, but their main reason is usually a desire to know what’s actually being done with their money – how their personal capital is being deployed.

We direct a lot of energy into making it clear exactly what we intend to do with our members’ money, and what we expect the outcomes to be of that activity. That’s what people value.

What do you see of the future of sustainable banking in the coming years?

We’ll see some convergence, hopefully a movement towards more support for the real economy from mainstream banks.

The sustainable banking sector will really lead the way in this because it doesn’t have the distractions that the mainstream banks do: it has a very clear focus on establishing the building blocks of an emerging sustainable economy.

You have one thing to say to someone to convince them to switch to Ecology. What is it?

Ask your bank how your money is deployed. Then ask yourself if you can have peace of mind about how the interest you received is generated. How is your money being used in the real world? Does that fit with who you are and what you believe?

Paul Ellis is chief executive of Ecology Building Society.

Further reading:

Small is beautiful: why alternative banks need to step up to the mark

The demise of the mutual sector? We don’t think so

Has your bank been naughty or nice in 2013?

Transforming Finance: how can we fix our broken financial system?

The Guide to Sustainable Banking 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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