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Autumn statement: the reaction

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George Osborne has delivered his autumn statement to the House of Commons, which included an outline of the government’s gas strategy. His speech can be found here in full.

We’ll be updating this piece throughout the afternoon to cover all the reaction in the aftermath of the chancellor’s address.

Ed Davey, secretary of state for energy and climate change

“We have always said that gas will have a significant role in our electricity mix over the next two decades – this is not new.

“Gas will provide a cleaner source of energy than coal, and will ensure we can keep the lights on as increasing amounts of wind and nuclear come online through the 2020s.

“The strategy we set out today follows extensive consultation and is consistent with meeting our legislated carbon budgets and with significant decarbonisation of the power sector.”

Andy Atkins, executive director, Friends of the Earth

“Osborne’s statement smacks of the crass short-term desperation that’s fast becoming the hallmark of this government – it will do nothing to build a strong, future-proofed economy or safeguard our planet.

“The anti-green Chancellor is making a mess of the economy – he mustn’t be allowed to trample all over our environment too.

“The big polluters must think Christmas has come early – but if bad Santa Osborne’s gas-fired energy strategy gets the go-ahead it will leave cash-strapped households and the environment with a thumping hang-over for decades.

“While energy secretary Ed Davey attempts to show leadership at the Doha climate talks, the chancellor is hard at work handing out tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry that threaten to make a mockery of UK commitments to slash emissions.

“MPs must stop this reckless, headlong dash for gas and insist on an energy strategy that puts the long-term interests of the nation first – by investing in energy efficiency and the huge potential of the wind, waves and sun.”

John Cridland, director-general, CBI

“The CBI has been crying out for real action on infrastructure, investment and exports. £5 billion on near-term infrastructure, like the tube to Battersea, half a billion a year tax relief for small firms, and £1.5 billion extra export support should boost investment and create jobs.

“The government now has everything to prove by delivering. Businesses need to see the chancellor’s words translated into building sites on the ground.

“It is no surprise that after a difficult year the economic realities dictate that austerity and debt reduction will take longer. The chancellor has stuck to his guns on deficit reduction – avoiding deeper cuts or more borrowing in order to retain international credibility.

“The government’s gas strategy will improve confidence for investors in the UK’s energy sector. It makes sense to consult on the tax regime for shale gas so we maximise the amount of energy we can produce at home at reasonable cost.

“But we cannot become dependent on any one source of energy – gas will have an important role to play as part of a secure, low-carbon power mix alongside renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

“Today’s announcement on simplifying and reviewing the Carbon Reduction Commitment does not go far enough. We need a firm commitment now to scrap the scheme when public finances allow, and to replace it with a more coherent approach to business energy efficiency.”

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

“Today’s statement has provided some very welcome clarification as to the role of gas in bridging the looming energy gap mid-decade. It is sensible for the UK to invest in gas-fired power plants at this point in time as they are cleaner than coal, needed to back-up intermittent renewable energy sources, and can be built quicker with much lower up-front costs than nuclear plants.

“While the recent announcements in the energy bill will help ensure we meet our EU renewables obligation for 2020, it is important to acknowledge that climate change is still an issue and that gas is a fossil fuel. This announcement reinforces the need for more investment, research and development into carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a technology which could in future be retrofitted onto gas plants to prevent emissions entering the atmosphere.

“It is also important that the UK doesn’t become over-reliant on gas. The UK’s offshore gas reserves are dwindling, and given that the contribution of shale gas will probably be limited to a few percent of future UK demand, we are unlikely to ever be self-sufficient in gas.”

Nick Molho, head of energy policy, WWF-UK

“The UK’s overreliance on gas is, environmentally and economically, highly risky. Gas price rises have driven people’s bills up in recent years so committing the UK to more gas seems to show a reckless disregard for both billpayers and the environmental impact of burning yet more fossil fuels.

“The government must not ignore the potential economic benefits of investing in renewable energy, with polls also showing the majority of the public want more renewable energy. Politically, economically and environmentally the government’s strategy just doesn’t make sense.”

James Constant, chair, Energy Forecaster

“On a mass scale – like the US – shale gas has been proved to bring a new dynamic to the market, with reduced gas costs and greater supply. Despite this, there has been an increase in costs as people moved to more expensive fuels for greater margin – the benefits of having a fuel mix… make money where you want when the prices dictate – but the jury is out in the UK.

“There are several questions that need to be answered – do we have the capacity; do we have the capacity to return on the investment quickly enough to cover the costs; do we have the willingness for this to be anything but a small scale source of power?

“In principle shale gas is cheaper, but you need a lot of it to quickly to offset the costs of getting the stuff out in the first place, and then once you have it the old market dynamics won’t really change long-term.”

Maria McCaffery, chief executive, RenewableUK

“There are a number of elements in the autumn statement we wholeheartedly applaud. Green growth has been a key driver in manufacturing success and some of our home-grown supply chain companies can benefit from the extra incentives around domestic and export opportunities. However, the real spur to invest for these companies is the guarantee of a long-term market.

“The energy bill has laid out a good framework, but there’s still a lack of clarity beyond the next five years, and for the supply chain to scale up and the UK reap the benefits of that in terms of skilled green jobs, we need to see the bigger picture. Based on what the government has announced today, decisions on gas depend on what happens in 2014, and decarbonisation in 2030 depends on what happens in 2016 – so it feels like a lot of the important pieces are still in play. There’s still going to be a lot of movement over the next few years, so government has its work cut out convincing world-leading companies it remains committed to low carbon generation.”

Mark Kenber, CEO, The Climate Group

“The only role gas should play in the UK’s energy policy is to facilitate a mid-term transition to a decarbonised energy sector. Instead of that, the chancellor today placed gas at the very centre of our future energy-mix.

“It misses the central point, namely the urgent need to decarbonise our economy and does little to support the UK’s energy sector to be globally competitive in the fast-growing international clean energy market.”

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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