When it comes to transportation, many people associate going greener with going pricier. But this isn’t always the case, as Tom Revell explains.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013.
A recent Ford-sponsored poll of 6,000 Europeans found that 54% of respondents believe that climate change is the single biggest problem the world faces today. But only 23% said they want to take efforts to change their future travel behavior to be greener.
Part of this apprehension may be something to do with the pricetag with some modes of greener transport. The Ford Focus Electric, for example, is priced from £33,500 (with an on the road price of £28,500 allowing for the £5,000 government plug-in car grant). An average Focus would could at least £10,000 less. Though the potential savings from powering up an electric vehicle (EV) with homegrown solar electricity are massive, it’s the original bill that catches the eye.
Of course, this disadvantage doesn’t fit everything. Catching the bus, or even doing some good, old fashioned walking are patently cheaper than keeping a gas-guzzling car on the road. But for many journeys, car ownership is simply more convenient.
The solution, which combines the convenience of having car with the financial prudence of, well, not having a car, is obvious. Car sharing provides a simple way for drivers and travellers to reduce both costs and environmental footprints. However, it is often overlooked.
City Car Club parks vehicles around a number of UK cities, allowing its members to share them by booking and paying only for the time they use. Car clubs allow their members to give up their own vehicles, as they can have use of a vehicle when they need one, without the associated costs and hassles of owning one.
Vicky Shipway, head of marketing at City Car Club, explains, “A significant proportion of money spent on a vehicle is not directly related to the journeys people make – MOTs, servicing and insurance costs have to be paid even when a vehicle isn’t used.
“Making the move to a car club instantly saves on these costs as you only pay for the journey you make. When combined with the use of public transport the savings can be significant – independent research has shown up to £3,600 can be saved every year by making the move from car ownership to a car club.”
BlaBlaCar meanwhile provides a membership service that connects drivers with empty seats and long distance journeys with people who want to travel in the same direction. In this case, the benefits for both are also clear. BlaBlaCar automatically calculates how much each passenger should contribute towards petrol costs. Taking three travellers can more or less cover a motorist’s expenses, while the hitchhikers can get a lift considerably cheaper than, say, a last-minute train ticket.
Vanina Schick, brand manager of BlaBlaCar, tells the story of one member named Helen, an elegant, 50-something textile designer working in London, her husband – an artist based in a studio in Cornwall – and her weekly commute to see him.
“Helen told me that she’s been doing this for 10 years, but then a couple of months ago she heard about BlaBlaCar and straight away offered her ride”, Schick explains.
“She has since had three passengers in her car for every single trip for the last two months.”
With each passenger contributing £20, Helen can recoup fuel costs of around £120 a week, or around £6,000 per year.
According to BlaBlaCar’s figures, even someone making a more manageable weekly commute, between Oxford and London for example, could save over £1,000 a year by taking just two passengers on each journey.
And of course, this does not just apply to long-distance drivers. An average 30-mile trip to work can cost £23 per day, or £5,309 a year. Sharing the ride with just one colleague could save £11.50 per day, or £2,655 per annum. Northern Ireland’s Car Share Scheme provides a handy online calculator than can determine your potential savings.
However, there is more to the car sharing experience than this, Schick adds.
As it allows people to enjoy intergenerational conversations that tend not to happen elsewhere, there is also a social aspect – from which BlaBlaCar gets its name. “We find that once people have shared a journey together, they never stop”, says Schick.
Perhaps more important than the socialising and the lessened impact on our pockets, however, is the environmental benefit; fewer cars means less pollution and fewer accidents. Schick explains that car sharing is really about rationalising our roads.
“If you sit in a traffic jam, well, first of all it’s annoying because you’re sitting in a traffic jam. But then you look at the cars next to you and see that they are all single occupancy vehicles. It makes no sense.”
BlaBlaCar sees those empty seats as wasted assets, and all that unnecessarily burnt petrol as squandered natural capital. With globally rising populations and carbon emissions, they are indeed assets and capitals we cannot afford to waste.
“We’re seven billion people. Sustainably, one of our objectives is also to have a better quality of life for every single person on the planet”, says Schick.
“Quality of life is also about mobility. If you ascribe unlimited mobility to seven billion people, and if that translates to a car per person, that’s a catastrophe. There’s no way that can happen.
“Unless we radically rationalise our car use, we are going to hit a wall.”
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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