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Taking the lead: how to govern for sustainability



National leaders can learn from collaborative governance for sustainability at a regional level, and should encourage it, says Duncan Jefferies. 

When announcing his plan to kickstart the US economy in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt famously declared that the country had “nothing to fear but fear itself”. In just 100 days, through a flurry of legislation and investment, his government dragged the country up off its knees – a towering political achievement.

Today, this kind of bold political leadership seems in short supply, particularly when it comes to dealing with environmental challenges. Many politicians seem unable or unwilling to look beyond short-term electoral concerns to the long-term wellbeing of the planet – something that becomes acutely clear whenever world leaders gather at climate change summits. Even the immediate impacts of a warming climate on food and water security are treated as isolated crises, rather than prompting action to tackle the root causes.

By contrast, it’s not hard to find examples of ambitious local leadership on climate change. In the US, for instance, state government has been “much more proactive in taking action on climate change than the federal government”, observes Dr Hu Tao, senior associate at the World Resources Institute. He points to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – a co-operative effort by several north-east and mid-Atlantic US states to cap carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector – as well Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to improve New York City’s environmental sustainability by 2030.

Many other cities, states and counties across the world are also pressing ahead with innovative solutions to sustainability challenges. For example, Ontario, Canada’s largest province, has installed 4.7m smart meters and its Smart Grid Fund provides financial support for innovative smart grid technologies. While in south-east Queensland, local government and utilities worked together to reduce water use among 80,000 ‘high volume’ households, implementing solutions such as rain capture bins and low-irrigation lawn covers.

So what role can national leaders best play today, given a very different political, social and economic landscape to the one Roosevelt faced? Decentralisation, grassroots initiatives and the internet have radically altered power structures, creating more space for bottom-up leadership. An approach to tackling sustainability challenges that combines a clear mission from the top with devolved power to implement it therefore seems like the way forward.

Such an approach has arguably been key to Angela Merkel’s success. Germany’s regional communities are at the heart of the Energiewende (‘Energy Shift’), which Merkel helped to kickstart when she decided to abandon nuclear power completely in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. She has continued to support this transformation, which aims to have the country producing 80% of its power from renewables by 2050, despite its spiraling costs.

More than half of Germany’s renewable energy capacity is now provided by individuals, co-operatives and farmers. This rapid growth in small-scale renewable energy production is largely due to a generous feed-in tariff that guarantees a fixed price for surplus energy for 20 years, and priority access to the grid – a great example of top-down governance prompting local action.

National governments must provide the framework to allow such changes to happen. According to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) paper Cities, Climate Change and Multilevel Governance, the potential of local bodies to act on climate change is “nested” in legal and institutional frameworks at higher scales. At the same time, devolution of power from national to local government can drive action on climate change, allowing cities and regions to shape policies on energy, land use, transport and waste to suit local contexts.

In a recent #SustLiving Twitter chat, Unilever’s chief sustainability officer Gail Klintworth even said, “We believe that Unilever should play an active role in shaping legislation and regulations that enhance positive social and environmental outcomes.” The company is also encouraging its brands to engage with local governments and other organisations to help inform public policy.

National governments can also view local initiatives as test-beds for national policy, sounding out business and public support for new regulations or solutions. The data generated and lessons learned can provide useful models for wide-scale change programmes: California’s vehicle emissions standards, for example, have now been adopted nationwide in the US.

In China, growing anger at the health problems caused by the choking smog that blankets cities has also spurred the government to introduce a carbon-trading scheme, starting in Shenzhen, which will be rolled out in six other municipalities before 2014. If successful, it could provide the basis for a national system.

By contrast, the Transition Towns movement, which began in the UK and has since spread to more than 40 countries around the world, is a real grassroots initiative. It shows what local communities can achieve through community energy initiatives, food hubs and local currencies – small steps that could add up to wide-scale action on sustainability issues. The Community Energy Coalition, a group of organisations with over 12 million members convened by Forum for the Future, is also aiming to increase UK community energy projects by 2020.

National governance can still have a big influence on the success of grassroots energy projects. For example, local residents of Lewes, another UK Transition Town, helped to raise more than £350,000 for a community-owned solar-power station in 2011. The initiative was a response to feed-in tariffs for solar projects generating more than 50 kilowatts (kW) – but such a project wouldn’t be economically viable today, as the tariffs were subsequently cut.

As the Transition movement shows, there is potential to deepen public engagement in securing the resources on which they depend. Governance has a role here: an engaging communications campaign on the benefits of home energy saving measures could ramp up the impact of the UK’s green deal initiative, for example.

Traditional forms of communication can also be supplemented by gamification techniques, which tap into people’s desire for play and reward. One successful scheme, Recyclebank, tracks how much recycling households are doing, and offers vouchers for reaching targets. Three hundred cities in the US and UK have now adopted it. Windsor and Maidenhead council says it has increased recycling rates to 50%.

As Recyclebank, the Energiewende, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative demonstrate, social and environmental challenges are best tackled collectively, through multilevel governance. “Understand this is not just a job for politicians”, said Barack Obama in his long-awaited speech on climate change, which was praised by many environmental groups. “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”

The true test of his leadership, and that of other global leaders, will be whether they can empower more individuals, communities and organisations to find solutions and act on them. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Duncan Jefferies is a freelance journalist and assistant editor of Green Futures. This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures published by Forum for the Future.

Further reading:

Politicians have failed us on sustainability. It’s time for our mayors to step up

Mayors pledge to fight climate change as cities ‘are on the frontlines’

Sustainability isn’t about being fluffy; it’s about being strategic

We need Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and nationalist parties that get sustainability

Sustainability could hold the key to 2015 general election result


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By 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 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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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

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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