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Economy

Ethical IFA of the week: Ethical Futures

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There are many independent financial advisers (IFAs) across the country, that give advice on ethical, sustainable and responsible investment. Among them is the Edinburgh-based Ethical Futures.

Ethical Futures was established in 2005 by financial advisers Julian Parrott and Martin Wight, to help people plan for their futures by investing their money according to their values. 

Parrott spoke with Tom Revell about the state of the ethical investment market today and how Ethical Futures stays true to his punk roots.

Tell us a little about the history of Ethical Futures.

Ethical Futures is coming up to its tenth year. I formed Ethical Futures with my current partner Martin Wight, who I’d known for some time. We founded it as an ethically focused financial planning firm trying to deliver a broad range of financial advice to individuals predominantly, but also some trusts and charities as well. 

Both of us were financial planners before, and we basically just got a bit fed up of working for big businesses in the mainstream sector. I had started to develop and interest in ethical investment in the 90’s, which was really quite nascent at that time. Fortunately for me, an opportunity just came along to align my values with a viable business opportunity. 

On your website you say, “we’re a bit different from the average firm and I like to think, still true to my roots of the punk ethos”. How does an IFA stay true to the punk ethos?

My roots and politics derive from mid 70’s leftish politics shared responsibility and collective action. I don’t actually believe in many aspects of the western corporate capitalist society that we have today. Somehow, I found myself working in personal finance and actually, I’m quite good at it!

When it started, punk was not about Mohicans and spitting (that came much later) it was about being anti-establishment, going against the grain, doing something different and doing it for yourself. It also led to a significant growth in small non-corporate ‘indie’ labels and collective working. To that extent, I suppose we try to find ways to buck mainstream views about investing for maximum profit.

If there’s a punk ethos that underpins what we do, it’s doing things differently, challenging large corporates, supporting smaller firms, mutuals and social businesses. I would like to think that by encouraging investors to invest ethically, we can challenge the orthodoxy about profit maximisation by making small changes in how businesses are run. Businesses should consider all stakeholders and environmental and social impact – not just shareholders. Trying to establish a true shareholder democracy.

How is business at the moment?

Hectic. We’ve grown as a business and we’ve attracted more people and we’ve got a lot more money under management. We haven’t converted the whole of Scotland – that would be nice – but we’ve done well for a small business to create a decent amount of money under an ethical mandate.

And we’ve been growing our staff to reflect that. In ten years we’ve gone from 12 hours a week to 120 hours a week, in terms of support staff. 

Do you think the demand for ethical and sustainable investments has increased since you founded Ethical Futures?

My measure for how it is increased is not so much my own clients – it’s difficult to know whether there are just more clients out there or whether we are being successful in attracting them – but I gauge it through my engagement with other financial services professionals, who are not solely active in the ethical sphere.

My engagement on that basis tells me there has been a great increase in interest in ethical and sustainable investments.

Are there any trends emerging at the moment that you think investors should be watching?

Yes, though probably not the ones which are governed by most of the ethically screened funds. The trends that are coming to the fore are allied to financial crash times but also to more recent revelations as well.

They are tied more to the corporate governance agenda rather than specifically the ethical investment agenda, but concerns about short-termism in corporate management, issues regarding tax avoidance, executive pay, are I suppose some of the key trends.

For these issues, there are signs that governance concerns, which used to feature mainly in the ethical market, have now become much more common place in the mainstream investment market. The outcome being governance concerns are now an important factor in investment decisions. It’s about engaging and trying to make gradual and incremental changes to corporate activity.

Have you noticed any funds that are doing particularly well that investors ought to watch out for?

Its not like there’s one particular fund that you should put all your money in, diversity is the watchword. There are however, funds that adopt a fresh and forward looking approach to investment. These funds include Alliance Trust, Ecclesiastical and WHEB. They have good considered positions in terms of where they invest. But to say put all your money in one pot or the other is a dangerous game. 

What do you think the impact of the new ISA allowance will be?

That the rich will get richer. It’s a load of rubbish. Less than one in eight people used their full ISA allowance before the budget announcement. All it means is that more middle class people will be able to put more of their money away tax-free. 

The only way to make more people better off is to redistribute income more effectively around society. The ISA and pension changes are a bit of George Osborne’s political expediency and Tory double-talk, basically. 

And what do you think about the changes to pensions?

I think a lot of people will blow their pension money as well. The changes hadn’t been announced more than half an hour before I had the first irrational phone call, from someone who simply could not afford to do what they wanted to do.

I genuinely think that people need to be encouraged to stop and think about these things, and to look after their money. There are some good elements that have come out of the regulatory changes but by and large these changes don’t really mean much unless you have a lot of money. Or very little! 

We have become a very individualised society. Whilst individualism might be appropriate in some cases – ergo the choice of becoming a punk rocker in the seventies – with that comes a considerable amount of costs borne individually.  Margaret Thatcher once said there’s no such thing as society, and David Cameron and his cohorts are doing their level best to prove that. Which is why you now need a little help from an ethical financial planner.   

Further reading:

Ethical IFA of the week: Lee Coates

Budget 2014: Pensions shake-up divides industry – but may boost sustainable investment

My budget 2014 wishlist: Julian Parrott, ethical financial adviser

From ethics to sustainability: shifting the investment debate for 2014

Sustainable financial advice: IFA Julian Parrott on ‘fighting for the ethics’

 

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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