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It’s the election, stupid: why the US is lost to a serious debate about climate… for now

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It is relatively easy to make wild promises, being an unelectable third candidate in US politics. The Green Party’s Jill Stein has a tendency to throw stones, but offers little insight into the effects on her own glass house.

There has been uproar amongst the worldwide environmental lobby regarding the so-called ‘climate silence’ during the three presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

Respected academics and personalities such as Joseph Romm and our own Sir David Attenborough have endeavoured to fill this void by highlighting these omissions, and in the process proffering their stark views on the current effects of climate change. Romm notes that “more voters say they understand that humans are warming the planet — and will reward candidates who say they’d do something about the problem”, while Sir David cannot hide his exasperation that the “most powerful nation in the world, North America, denies what the rest of us can see very clearly” and affirms that “the situation is worse than we thought” regarding the melting of Arctic sea ice.

Even The Onion weighed in on furore with a unique take on the debate within a debate.

These are all valid points, and it is regrettable that the issue of climate change could not find its way onto the question cards of the debate moderators. There is however a danger of attaching too much significance to what is said in a debate without taking into account real action, and this is the territory into which Green Party candidate Jill Stein has strayed during this election.

Stein has levelled the charge of “climate denier” at the feet of Obama, and has insisted that the president “is not going to get us out of here alive”. She also asserts that his “climate policies are just as devastating” as his opponent’s. This is simply not the case, as I outlined in previous articles for Blue & Green Tomorrow regarding the clean energy policies and positions of both Obama and Romney.

It is definitely worth repeating that the stimulus package forced through by Obama in 2009 included a $90 billion investment in clean energy and energy efficiency, and this policy has been repeatedly used as a stick to beat the president with by his counterparts, including Romney. The governor did an impeccable job of summing up the policy difference in this regard when he mocked Obama in August, telling a crowd, “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” Obama could be accused of hubris, but to say there is little policy difference in this regard is entirely disingenuous.

Stein also insists that “it is an absolutely false choice to tell people they have to choose one or the other” regarding the two main candidates. This statement is not only complete nonsense but also potentially dangerous, and perhaps fatal, to her cause. However much Stein, the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or any other third-party candidate would wish it otherwise, American politics is a stubbornly two-party system, and that is not likely to change – a cursory glance at election results over the last 200 years will confirm this.

There is a time and a place during a four-year electoral cycle for serious environmental lobbying, but it is not three weeks before the election. The Republicans know this, and they have the likes of Karl Rove acting as chief whips to keep their base in line.

Does anybody think that the gun lobby is any less concerned than the green lobby is regarding the outcome of this election? And how much have we heard about the second amendment during the current electoral process? The National Rifle Association is content to stand behind ‘Mitt the Moderate’ and as much as it pains me to say it, the progressive forces on the fringes in America could learn from this approach.

It is all too easy for Stein to play to these fringes with her brand of idealism but this is a time for pragmatism, and every single vote the Green Party gains is a vote that Obama loses. These lost votes are ones that Romney was never going to get. As was remarked in a recent Guardian piece about Stein, the Green Party certainly lost the election for Al Gore in 2000 – that’s Inconvenient Truth Al Gore, as staunch an advocate of environmental issues as there has ever been in mainstream politics. It would be a tragedy were it to happen again. Don’t let it.

Charlie Wood is a 30-year-old recent graduate of English literature at Leeds Metropolitan University, from Fleetwood, Lancashire, and West Cork, Ireland. He intends to pursue a career in politics and writing.

Further reading:

Obama v Romney: the sustainability debate rages on

From ‘dirty power plants’ to Arctic oil drilling: can the US be sustainable under Romney?

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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