In his speech today, David Cameron rallied the faithful, attacked the opposition and attempted to reach a sceptical electorate. Our economy, the sixth largest in the world, is struggling. The prime minister needed to show leadership in setting out a vision for a sustainable recovery, laying the foundations for a more balanced and stable economy tomorrow. Did he deliver?
Yesterday, Greg Barker, minister of state for energy and climate change, said the Conservatives will not “burden” the economy to meet climate targets and put an end to the “gravy train” of green subsidies. It seems that the Conservatives are willing to “burden” future generations in not meeting climate targets and will continue the “gravy train” of fossil fuel subsidies.
Today, we wanted to see Cameron repudiate such wilful, misleading and errant nonsense. Instead, we wanted him to reaffirm his commitment to creating the “greenest government ever“. Of course, the United Kingdom needs a government that tackles today’s serious economic crises, public debt, deficit and entrepreneurial malaise. We also need one that honestly and openly addresses future environmental threats for our generation and those to come.
Instead, he said nothing about a sustainable recovery, balanced economy or anything else to do with the environment, apart from a disastrous relaxation of planning laws that currently protect our green spaces and two rushed mentions of renewable energy and the Green Investment Bank.
Our economic recovery depends on keeping the lights on, so let’s focus on Barker’s misinformation. The recurring myth is that renewables are “subsidy junkies“. Today we subsidise both fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) and renewables (wind, solar, tidal, wave, hydro and biomass).
Here are the facts: for every household, we subsidise fossil fuels by £138 and renewables by £53 (OECD and DECC). For every pound of renewable subsidy, fossil fuels receive £2.60.
The fossil fuel industry is also a mature one with established technologies and, as with all mature and increasingly efficient industries, falling numbers of people working in it. The renewable industry is an emerging one with new technology and growing numbers working in it.
The fossil fuel industry means relying on increasingly volatile global commodity prices. We also need to import those scarce commodities from unstable regions in the world, where we will inevitably need to fight more wars to protect the supply chain. The renewable industry is home grown, limitless and means we can bring our troops home, permanently.
The fossil fuel industry pumps billions of tonnes of particulates into the air poisoning our skies and increasing respiratory, heart and skin diseases. The renewable industry is clean.
Dashing for gas is a fool’s errand as it remains a finite, polluting fossil fuel. Extracting it from shale means pumping millions of gallons of a toxic cocktail into the ground where we draw our water supplies from and causes the odd earthquake. It will also need massive subsidies to get going.
As a magazine that supports free and transparent markets, we also believe there is a clear role for government. That role is to create a fair and stable regulatory framework for markets in which companies can invest and innovate. Endless tinkering with feed-in tariffs is not that stable regulatory framework that the fledgling renewable industry needs.
Mature industries, such as fossil fuel companies, probably should not be subsidised. Emerging and innovative industries should be. Innovation equals growth and we have the knowledge and natural renewable resources to create world-beating industries in clean technologies of energy efficiency and electricity generation.
Cameron ended his speech with a rallying patriotic call to arms.
“This is the country that invented the computer, defeated the Nazis, started the web, saw off the slave trade, unravelled DNA and fought off every invader for a thousand years.”
He could have added that we kicked-off the industrial revolution, established common law principles that are the basis for legislation around the world and introduced the right to trial by peers and habeas corpus.
It is a tragic failure of leadership that he neglected to commit our dynamic, entrepreneurial and innovative nation to leading a sustainable revolution, or even mention the environment at all.
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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