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Big Society Capital: good idea, wrong format

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The Government has launched a £600m Big Society Capital bank to “help society expand” by supporting social enterprise projects. But, as is all too often the case, the devil is in the details.

Around the time of the 2010 General Election, talk of the ‘big society’ seemed to engulf political journalism despite being, as Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart wrote, “Surely the vaguest slogan ever coined by a political leader. Nobody knows what it means.”

Following the coalition government’s election win, the big society appeared to slowly slip down the agenda. Until this week that is, with the announcement of a £600m bank that aims to put into practice the policy that arguably won the Conservatives their place at No. 10.

For years, the City has been associated with providing capital to help businesses to expand”, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed yesterday.

This is about supplying capital to help society expand. Just as finance from the City has been essential to help businesses grow and take on the world, so finance from the City is going to be essential to helping tackle our deepest social problems.”

Big Society Capital, as it’s called, aims “to build a sustainable social investment market to help social sector organisations increase their impact on society”.

Summoning £400m from dormant bank accounts, with an extra £200m provided collectively by the ‘big four’ high street banks – Barclays, Lloyds TSB, HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland, the fund will invest in social investment finance intermediaries (SIFIs) to help fledgling social organisations expand and prosper.

Big Society Capital is going to encourage charities and social enterprises to prove their business models – and then replicate them”, Cameron added.

Once they’ve proved that success in one area they’ll be able—just as a business can—to seek investment for expansion into the wider region and into the country.

This is a self-sustaining, independent market that’s going to help build the Big Society.”

The announcement has been met with scepticism by many. Julian Parrott, partner at Ethical Futures, told Blue & Green Tomorrow that whilst the Big Society Capital was, in principle, a “welcome development”, it was “really only a halfway house”.

He adds, “At present [it] is still in the realms of specialist lenders such as Triodos, Unity and Ecology Building Society and not mainstream banking.

The ‘socially motivated investors’ still seem to be the ultra-wealthy and philanthropists or the depositors in the aforementioned organisations.

I would like to see much more work into ways to move access to this sort of investment down to a much more manageable, personal scale so everyone could put a social impact investment in their ISA.”

Tying into this, the big society has not been short of criticism. In a Guardian article from 2010, Hilary Wainwright wrote, “Without economic democracy, decentralisation of political power will reinforce inequality, shifting power not “from the state to working people” but to those who already have the money, social networks and time to make the system work for them.”

An editorial piece by the same newspaper said how the big society “contains some decent notions, but they quickly fray when stretched into an overarching philosophy”, whilst David Blanchflower described it as “nothing more than a thinly disguised cover for a Thatcherite attack on the state” in The Independent.

Another dubious point that seems to have been overlooked by the mainstream media is the people running the fund—namely, Nick O’Donohoe and Sir Ronald Cohen.

O’Donohoe was a member of the executive committee at JP Morgan Chase, where he worked for 15 years. The company received significant criticism for its role in financing American energy company, Enron, during its demise in 2001.

JP Morgan Chase was ordered to pay $2.2 billion in fines in 2005, as well as several other sums before that.

Sir Ronald meanwhile, is the founder of Apax, a private equity firm whose dealings have come under scrutiny on a number of occasions.

Choosing these two men to front Big Society Capital, given their pasts, doesn’t really scream “society expansion”.

It’s hoped that the bank’s foundation will make it easier for social enterprise groups to gain access to long-term capital. Only time will tell.

Other government projects such as the Green Investment Bank and the Green Deal have similarly promised much but encountered stumbling blocks or disappointed. It’s important that Big Society Capital keeps its head above water both financially and morally.

Fears of alienation at an individual or community level are anticipated. Indeed, in the search for social equilibrium, private sustainable investment emerges as one of the most effective solutions.

Ask your IFA about social investment or, if you don’t have one, fill in our online form and we’ll guide you through the process.

Further reading:

An unsustainable budget 

Invest ethically, reap prosperity

Green Investment Bank decision “a disgrace” 

Government’s own figures show that Green Deal could fail

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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