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We need more people with complete sustainability literacy



Sustainability is probably the most important global issue that is least talked about. In essence it’s the need to follow the care instructions for the planet upon which we and our future generations depend.

We can define what a sustainable society is and have the ability to actively create the systems and undertake the behaviours that move towards that vision of success, yet if we look at almost every sustainability indicator, we are accelerating towards the cliff edge, in some cases the point of no return.

Having worked in the field for the last 20 years, I have found that there is still a lack of the core understanding of what we mean by ‘sustainability’ and a huge gap in any approach to strategically achieve it from local to global levels. A few businesses and municipalities are leading in this field, putting in place clear frameworks that are applied to meet the goal of achieving a sustainable state in the future.

These are recognising how to create the practices that respond to the sustainability constraints and opportunities ahead. However, many others talk about the need to be sustainable without any obvious clear strategies to achieve this.

Many are targeting specific sustainability goals, such as carbon or water reduction, yet unless organisations (and also societies) have a more complete understanding and approach to designing out unsustainability throughout their activities then the future heath of the planet and our societies will undoubtedly systematically deteriorate.

The danger lies in that if we only partially ‘get’ sustainability, we will only partially create the sustainability outcomes we need. Having people with a complete sustainability literacy, a common language that can be applied across policy, business and society would eliminate confusion, providing the clarity to make decisions to holistically move us towards our goal.

Too often, I see well-intentioned decisions made with often potentially contradictory long-term outcomes. For example, conversations with social purpose charities identify the focus on delivering their goals for social improvement whilst undertaking activities that undermine the natural systems upon which the social groups they support ultimately depend.

Elsewhere we see organisations invest in carbon intensive systems even though the impacts through climate change will penalise them significantly in the future.

We need to expand our thinking, to build a shared vision and imagine the world that we can all create. This will require us to have a fuller understanding of what sustainability is and our roles in helping to contribute fully towards this.

A future sustainable society is one that we should all hope to build and through this is possible through our unbounded innovation and creativity. It will mean us recognising that some of the systems upon which we rely, those that don’t or can’t deliver to a sustainable society, will need to be adapted.

We will also need to find ways to ensure this vision brings along vested interests and others that may otherwise fight against this change. This dialogue will help challenge many of the systems that currently hold us back. For example, businesses focus on the short-term quarterly reporting requirements and the need to meet the shareholders drive for earnings.

If we developed a shared vision that enables everyone to see their role and identify their needs in the short, medium and long-term, then we will begin to create more appropriate sustainable systems that will meet the needs for everyone for ever. We will see the value in investing for the long-term in all areas of life.

To move us on our path we need to ensure that all decision makers and those that have influence on the planet can use their knowledge strategically to systematically reduce and eliminate unsustainable impacts. This affects some more than others: governments, businesses, NGOs but also individuals who are key levers as both consumers and voters.

Sustainability issues surround us in every place we are and in all the decisions and actions we make now which will have implications for us in the future. Sustainability isn’t rocket science, we just need to raise our understanding to begin connecting the dots and learning actively about the world and societies around us and how our decisions impact on them. By moving from a partial understanding to a fuller understanding then we see the bigger picture and begin positively contributing to the amazing potential that sustainability brings.

Realising it is every one of our roles to help create the future we desire is the first step, becoming curious about what we can and should do and collaborating and creating the innovations and systems that will deliver this world is in our hands – that is if we want that amazing future enough.

Simon Goldsmith has worked in the sustainability arena for the past 20 years, working in many sectors from campaigning for environmental NGOs, to reducing the impacts of multinational oil and gas companies. 

Further reading:

What gets measured gets managed: sustainability in 21st century business

The business case for sustainability – an exceptional Forum for the Future event

90% of investors say CSR and sustainability reports are ‘essential’

Business rife with short-termism; just 7% feel pressure to deliver long-term returns

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013

Simon Goldsmith has worked in the sustainability arena for the past 20 years, working in many sectors from campaigning for environmental NGOs, to reducing the impacts of multinational oil and gas companies. He has master’s degrees in both in sustainability leadership and environmental policy and works to help create innovative local solutions and lever ideas for transformational sustainability change. He also explores ways to engage people to connect authentically and passionately to become the sustainability leaders and heroes the future needs.


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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