An unprecedented coalition of 38 governments, hundreds of businesses and influential international organisations has called today for accelerated action to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, a move that would help bridge the gap to keep global temperature rise below 2°C.
On the opening day of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21), New Zealand Prime Minister John Key formally presented the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communiqué to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), on behalf of the Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform, The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group and other supporters of the Communiqué.
The Communiqué calls on the international community to increase efforts to phase out perverse subsidies to fossil fuels by promoting policy transparency, ambitious reform and targeted support for the poorest.
Governments spend over $500 billion of public resources a year to keep domestic prices for oil, gas and coal artificially low. Removing fossil fuel subsidies would reduce greenhouse gas emission by 10 percent by 2050. It would also free up resources to invest in social and physical capital like education, healthcare and infrastructure, while leveling the playing field for renewable energy.
John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, said: “Fossil fuel subsidy reform is the missing piece of the climate change puzzle. It’s estimated that more than a third of global carbon emissions, between 1980 and 2010, were driven by fossil fuel subsidies. Their elimination would represent one seventh of the effort needed to achieve our target of ensuring global temperatures do not rise by more than 2°C. As with any subsidy reform, change will take courage and strong political will, but with oil prices at record lows and the global focus on a low carbon future – the timing for this reform has never been better.”
Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in accepting the Communiqué: “These subsidies contribute to the inefficient use of fossil fuels, undermine the development of energy efficient technologies, act as a drag on clean, green energy deployment and in many developing countries do little to assist the poorest of the poor in the first place. The huge sums involved globally could be better spent on schools, health care, renewable energies and building resilient societies. The current, very low oil prices are a good opportunity to really get going on this issue.”
Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, said: “History will prove fossil fuel to be a dead end. Sweden will be amongst the first fossil free welfare nations of the world. And eliminating fossil fuel subsidies is an important step on this path.”
Hakima El Haite, Environment Minister of Morocco, candidate for the presidency of COP22, said: “Not only do fossil fuel subsidies put a strain on government coffers but they also don’t help the poorest of society.”
Philippe Joubert, Chair of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group and former president of Alstom Power, said: “The CLG’s long-standing efforts to put a price on carbon, including most recently working with the World Bank through the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, will soon deliver results. It doesn’t make sense that, at the same time, governments artificially deflate the cost of coal, oil and gas, the primary cause of GHG emissions. Fossil fuel subsidies must be ended to stop this contradiction and enhance a real transition to low-carbon energy.”
OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said: “Countries need to demonstrate with concrete actions and policies that they are serious about combating climate change. Reforming harmful fossil-fuel support is a good place to start.”
38 countries have endorsed the Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communiqué, including Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Samoa, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uganda and Uruguay.
The Communiqué is supported by The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (23 global companies employing 2 million people worldwide with combined revenues exceeding $170 billion) and other business organisations working with thousands of corporations and investors, including The B Team, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the We Mean Business coalition . The Communiqué has also been endorsed by influential international organisations including the International Energy Agency, the OECD and the World Bank.
Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies can accelerate the economic shift needed to tackle climate change and remove one of the obstacles to delivering the low-carbon future COP21 is aiming for.
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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