Changes to the electoral system and the House of Lords, and doing more to engage young people with politics, are just some of the ideas put forward by leading campaign groups to make our democracy sustainable.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014.
A perceived lack of engagement and representativeness in our democracy and a shortage of concern for sustainability among some politicians is a key concern for many campaign groups and reform organisations. Though many are united by common concerns, they hold different views on how best to solve these extremely complex problems.
Jess Garland, a policy and research officer at the Electoral Reform Society with six years’ experience working in parliament, argues, “Young people are the key.”
“In every generation young people have shown a greater interest in the environment and sustainability than the wider population. Harnessing that enthusiasm so that it has a political impact can only have a positive impact on these issues”, she says.
The Electoral Reform Society has been fighting for a more representative electoral system since the Victorian period. In 1884, its founder Sir John Lubbock – a liberal, philanthropist and prolific polymath responsible for initiatives as varied as archaeological textbooks and the introduction of bank holidays – said, “I trust that Great Britain, the mother of parliaments, may once more take the lead among the great nations of the world by securing for herself a House of Commons which shall really represent the nation.”
One hundred and thirty years on, the organisation still believes that Lubbock’s mission has not been completed. It now lobbies against the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) system. Under this system, each constituency elects one MP from a choice of candidates. Voters can only vote once, and the candidate that gets the most votes becomes the MP. Though the public voted against replacing FPTP with an alternative voting system in a 2011 referendum, the Electoral Reform Society says it is “bad for voters, bad for government and bad for democracy”.
Garland argues that the two-party system that FPTP supports results in “highly short-termist” politics. “Parties in power are focused on winning the next election and therefore do not focus on longer-term strategies where the rewards will not be felt for generations”, she says. “Changing the electoral system to one that encourages a diversity of parties and coalitions creates more room for parties to work together in the interests of the country.”
The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) is a research and advocacy charity that works “to identify pathways to democratic innovation in the face of the major environmental and social pressures that lie ahead.”
It argues that current systems of democracy are poorly prepared for challenges like climate change and resource scarcity because they fail to consider long-term issues. However, it adds that a thriving democratic system, with engaged and represented voters, is essential for dealing with such problems.
John Lotherington, chairman of the FDSD, says, “We need to reinvigorate the idea of democracy which has been thinned out in the last generation, and the mission to rebuild our democracy in the face of apathy and vested interests.”
He argues that “sustained participation” from citizens is essential to this, adding, “The PR and marketing element of politics is not new, but our understanding of what is to be citizens has been hollowed out over time as we have increasingly become political consumers, with politicians vying to sell themselves as more effective managers or deliverers of services. To live fully as citizens we need to recover a better sense of the good life we share and how we promote that, not just pursuing more of everything.”
Lotherington also laments the influence of short-term electoral cycles on decision-making, saying that as a result, politics is about “continual crisis management rather than crisis prevention”. In order to make sure sustainability and long-term issues of greater concern to British politicians, he calls for the introduction of a constitutional change that has been tested elsewhere.
He points to Hungary’s Ombudsman for Future Generations, Finland’s Parliamentary Committee for the Future and Malta’s Council of Guardians – individuals and institutions given the responsibility to speak for the interests of voiceless, as yet unborn generations. In Wales, a future generations bill – under which all public bodies would have a responsibility to factor in the interests of future generations in all their operations – is also in the pipeline.
Lotherington argues the bill “should be a beacon for similar measures in the rest of the UK”. He says, “These initiatives are not about overriding the democratic rights of present citizens; they are about promoting awareness, debate and checks and balances, speaking to a fundamental value in our societies that the interests of future generations matter and must not be ignored.”
While he concedes it would not break down all barriers in the way of sustainability, such a measure would allow us to “become better at recognising those problems and addressing them at the hearts of our democracies”.
Since its establishment in 2007, Unlock Democracy has campaigned for a democracy “that puts power in the hands of the people” and for a written constitution “that serves and protects the people”.
It argues that this would pave the way for a democracy in which civil society is enthusiastically engaged, diversity and differences are valued and the problems and aspirations of all people are considered. The organisation is currently lobbying party leaders to push through a reform of the House of Lords, so that all members in the second chamber are elected and representative.
“Today the out of touch and unelected Lords continue to vote on our laws – changes to this country that have seen huge welfare cuts and the rise of food banks – whilst some Lords grumble about the quality of food in their subsidised restaurant in parliament”, says Alexandra Runswick, the director of Unlock Democracy. “The unelected House of Lords is an affront to British democracy”, she adds.
A 2012 YouGov poll, commissioned by Unlock Democracy, found that 69% of voters would support such a reform.
Photo: Selena Sheridan via Flickr
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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