On the eve of high-profile talks at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, Blue & Green Tomorrow provides a bird’s-eye view into what’s to come, what’s already happened and some of the developments you might have missed.
With 50,000 visitors and around 100 heads of state expected, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is, for many, the leverage for a swift scale-up of clean technology, green infrastructure and resource efficiency worldwide.
Among the array of innovative and sustainable solutions spotlighted is an awards ceremony: the Social Investment Pioneer Awards. The Principles for Social Investment Secretariat (PSIS) launched the awards in a call to businesses worldwide to showcase investment activity which is purposeful, accountable, respectful and ethical.
CEO of the PSIS, Shaun Cannon, relayed the importance of private sector engagement and sustainable community development: “The awards program will connect the top industry practitioners and highlight the importance of private sector engagement in sustainable community development.”
With the beginning of high-profile discussions only a day away, we’ve also seen progression in the form of innovative exploration into LED (light-emitting diodes) technology. A report, titled Lighting the Clean Revolution: The rise of LEDs and what it means for cities, takes a detailed examination of the global market status and potential of LEDs.
LED street lighting can generate energy savings as high as 85%, according to LightSavers, the independent, two-and-a-half year global pilot of LED lamps in 15 separate trials across 12 cities, which is behind the extensive report.
Launched as part of the Clean Revolution Campaign at the Rio+20 Sustainability Forum, and produced by influential names in sustainability such as the Climate Group, the report provides guidelines for policymakers and city light managers who want to scale-up and finance large LED retrofits.
Mark Kenber, CEO of the Climate Group said: “This report clearly highlights that LEDs are ready to be scaled-up in towns and cities across the globe.
“LED technology is energy efficient, scalable and positively impacts on the public; it is the ‘Clean Revolution’ in action. We are now calling on Governments to remove policy obstacles and enable rapid transition to low-carbon lighting.
He added, “We will be working to recruit a leadership group of city, state and national governments to adopt this and report on progress on an annual basis over the next three years.”
Yesterday, former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, and a group of international statesmen and business leaders, noted that in order to lead the world out of recession, a steep change in investment in renewable energy, clean technology and infrastructure is essential.
The letter says: “By the end of the decade, the low-carbon market could triple in value to over $2 trillion. At a time when government and business leaders everywhere are calling for strategies that deliver growth, we have a historic opportunity before us to lead the world out of recession and into a more stable, sustainable future.
“This is the time for a green industrial revolution led by real investment in clean technologies and infrastructure. The ‘Clean Revolution’ is essential if we want to ensure we save our economies from the crippling costs of runaway climate change, and create meaningful jobs and enhance energy security.”
In a pre-recorded speech, the Prince of Wales warned of the potentially “catastrophic” consequences, should the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio fail to reach a sustainable consensus on matters such as climate change and global food security.
In a video address, the prince said: “I have watched in despair at how slow progress has sometimes been and how the outright, sceptical reluctance by some to engage with the critical issues of our day have often slowed progress to a standstill.
“And we continue to ignore the painful lessons of the so-called green revolution in India by intensifying our food production methods in such blinkered, chemically and technologically –based ways, that the land and the oceans are beginning to fail.”
He added: “We do not have long to capture such a comprehensive picture, and so I would appeal to you as you meet here in Rio to make an even greater and concerted effort to persuade policy and decision-makers to act before it is finally too late.”
The 20 most powerful leaders in the world, who are meeting at the G20 Summit this week, are faced with the potential to “literally stop climate change”. Avaaz’s trending petition to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies has gathered huge momentum over the last 24 hours or so, with over 750,000 people signing it to “save the planet” – well on par for the 1,000,000 goal.
In its address to G20, Avaaz says, “As concerned citizens, we urge you to honour your previous commitments to end taxpayer hand-outs to the fossil fuel industry, and go a step further by redirecting that money into green climate solutions instead.
“To save our planet we need a game-changer now – we call on you to first lead by example, and then make ending all polluter payments that top global priority for the Rio Earth Summit.”
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.