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Why the Treasury makes it hard to invest sustainably

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Canary Wharf is a surreal place. Part theme park, part Alcatraz, it sits on top of a subterranean network of luxury shops: conspicuous consumption underpinning the heart of our financial sector. If you haven’t been, I’d recommend it, if only to experience the lingering sense of removal from reality.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) occupies 25 North Colonnade, a steel and concrete building 80 metres tall. Spread over 15 floors, the building is worth a little over £244m. It’s somewhat imposing. And so it should be: as an independent regulator accountable to the Treasury, the FCA is responsible for supervising 26,000 financial firms. It’s there to make sure financial markets work well and customers are protected from unfair treatment. It should feel like it has a bit of clout.

But 25 North Colonnade also represents a mindset firmly rooted in the world of plc banks, where the profit motive overrides all else. This is a huge obstacle for those of us who want to make finance work in the long-term interests of people and the planet. It means our conversations start from different places; our words mean different things. Ultimately, it means regulation can act as an obstacle to the growth of democratic, sustainable finance.

I’ve talked to lots of people who are working towards that goal. Some use established models, such as building societies and credit unions; others are at the forefront of alternative finance, including crowdfunding and online secondary markets. Their specific issues may be different, but a common theme emerges. We’re committed to good conduct, within and beyond the scope of the regulation. (Frankly, we’d be stupid not to be – most of our business models are founded on an ethical claim of some sort.) But we’re frustrated by the fragmented approach and lack of awareness we find at the FCA.

Where are the gaps? First, we see insufficient understanding of the nature of sustainable finance organisations. We do not exist to maximise profit from our customers. We exist to work with them to build a better world, using money as a means to an end. This isn’t sloganeering: it’s a fundamental principle that permeates everything we do. We might not be able to produce the reams of documentation or reels of metrics that the big banks use to demonstrate their good conduct, but we have the one thing they don’t: a sense of mission.

Encouragingly, the FCA is starting to focus its attention on culture rather than checklists and tick-boxes, but we have a long way to go. The fundamental assumption that good conduct and business success are in tension, and that our behaviour is a risk to be controlled, appears to run through much of the regulator’s thinking.

The nature of sustainable finance products is also, it seems, much misunderstood. Because they are different from the norm, or perhaps because the assets they invest in are unusual, the FCA often judges them to be complex or risky – and may restrict their availability to ‘sophisticated’ or ‘high net-worth’ investors.

No one should be misled about the risks of an investment opportunity. But equally, no one should be barred from making an informed decision to place some of their personal capital at risk in order to seek a higher financial, social or environmental return. If I can buy shares in Rio Tinto, Imperial Tobacco and BAE Systems, why shouldn’t I invest in renewables or community shops?

Most importantly, we see a lack of understanding of the sustainable investor: someone who invests to make a positive difference in the world, as well as gaining a financial return. To invest in this way doesn’t represent irrationality or cognitive bias, as might be suggested by the FCA’s discussion paper on behavioural economics. In fact, it represents a connection with the real world impact of money – one which was so badly lost in the years preceding the financial crisis.

The sustainable investor tends to be highly educated and takes a considered approach to investment, balancing financial risk against potential positive impact. This is someone who should have the right to use their money as they choose, to invest in the world they want to create.

This world desperately needs more sustainable, democratic finance. It needs organisations that connect enlightened investors with the low carbon economy and that understand the true role of money is to service our needs, not serve its own. This is the world we all live in, not the glass-fronted artifice of Canary Wharf. Perhaps it’s time the FCA left 25 North Colonnade and joined us here.

Anna Laycock is communications and ethics manager at the Ecology Building Society. This blog is part of Friends of the Earth’s Transforming the Treasury project, and originally appeared on its website.

Further reading:

What is your bank doing with your money? 35% of Britons have ‘no idea’

Women play a key role in helping make the investment world sustainable

‘It’s not my job’ to be responsible

Sustainable investment is about optimisation, not maximisation

From ethics to sustainability: shifting the investment debate for 2014

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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