Following a big energy bill announcement last Friday, and in advance of the publication of the bill tomorrow, the Renewable Energy Association’s James Beard makes the case for joined up reporting on energy and climate.
Last Monday, I said that it was time to push the reset button on the UK’s energy debate. Friday’s press coverage of the energy bill announcements is a crystal clear example of exactly why.
The major elements of the announcements were the expansion of the green energy budget (or levy control framework) to bring forward urgently needed investment in our creaking power structure, and a sort-of blurry vague commitment to a decarbonisation target. Let’s look at some of the headlines.
The Guardian: Energy deal means bills will rise to pay for green power
The Independent: Energy bills to rise by £170 a year to fund wind farms*
The Telegraph: Wind farms to increase energy bills by £178 a year
You can spot the common theme I’m sure. Perhaps we should expect headlines to focus on consumer bills, the most salient aspect of these announcements for the general public. That they should get the figures so wrong is already the subject of lively discussion – see my colleague Leonie’s blog. But what is equally disturbing, for me, is that not one of these news stories makes the connection between energy and climate change. We cannot discuss these issues in isolation.
Media focus on climate is beginning to heat up because of the Doha climate talks, and I for one was delighted when Ed Davey raised the climate issue in last Tuesday’s DECC select committee electricity market reform evidence session, reminding the audience of the CC in DECC. As well as the UNEP emissions report, we’ve also had reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank (hardly tree-huggers) reminding us just how damaging, and increasingly likely, an irreversibly warmed climate will be without urgent action on decarbonisation.
We’ve also had some strong campaigning from a group of 200 investment institutions making the simple point that virtually all business transactions will be riskier and costlier in an irreversibly warmed climate. A spokesman for the group said, “Investors are rightly concerned about the short and long-term economic risks of climate change and understand that ambitious climate and clean energy policies are urgently needed.”
Back in September, the UK’s Health Protection Agency contributed with a commendable first attempt to quantify the costs of irreversible climate change to the health of the British public. And just this week, the Association of British Insurers warned that climate change is making it too expensive to insure homes against flood risk without government intervention.
My point is: yes, energy bills will go up to pay for decarbonisation. But if we don’t pay those costs today, then in the near future our businesses will pay even more in the form of riskier transactions, and the public will pay even more as we suffer the health impacts. To bank on adaptation in the future being cheaper than mitigation today seems to me to be a very risky strategy indeed.
Climate change is not about hugging trees or huskies. It is a grave threat to the health of our nation and our economy. We must show strong leadership on emissions reduction if we are to have any hope of averting irreversible climate change.
The other bizarre anomaly is the difficulty the industry has in communicating the message that even without the costs of climate change, reducing demand and replacing fossil with renewable capacity probably isn’t the costliest option.
If we take the 2020 time horizon, DECC’s own analysis suggest that the whole basket of low-carbon policies will actually result in net bill reductions, as increases in levies for renewables (and carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear from 2014) are balanced out by savings from the government’s energy efficiency measures.
Taking a longer, 2050 time frame, analyses from McKinsey (EU scale) and chief scientific adviser David MacKay (UK scale), to name a couple, show that even without factoring in climate costs, an energy strategy with renewables at its heart could well be no more expensive than business as usual, as renewable energy has the benefit of providing energy security and driving jobs, innovation and growth in domestic industries.
It seems climate change is both the best friend and worst hindrance of the renewables industry. In theory, the decarbonisation imperative strengthens the case for renewables. But in reality, the wholly valid economic arguments which have nothing to do with climate change are perceived as simply retrospective attempts to justify fluffy cuddly climate policies.
Well, there’s nothing fluffy or cuddly about either climate change or the renewables industry. The renewables industry is a serious market player now, vital to British industrial and economic recovery, and climate change is an increasingly major threat. It’s time the energy debate woke up to the reality of them both. Perhaps we can start by developing a discourse of ‘energy and climate security’.
The Renewable Energy Association is hosting a symposium in March with the aim of resetting the energy debate to focus on ‘Energy, Security and Prosperity’ through to 2050. For more information or to register, click here: http://www.r-e-a.net/events/rea-symposium-2013.
James Beard is a press officer at the Renewable Energy Association. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBeardREA.
*As an aside, I think the boardrooms of companies involved in anaerobic digestion, biomass, energy-from-waste, gasification and pyrolysis, geothermal, hydro, solar, tidal and wave are probably fairly sick of being completely ignored when we talk about renewable electricity. Don’t get me wrong, I love wind power, when it is sensitively deployed. It’s a genuine cost-effective, low-carbon power source, and it has a really major role to play. But it’s insulting to use the totem of the wind turbine to depict an entire industry which has innovation and diversity in its DNA. And don’t get me started on people ignoring heat and transport – 75% of our carbon emissions – when they say ‘renewable energy’ when they really mean ‘renewable power’. Although in this particular example, the other renewables are probably fairly happy to let wind farms take the flak for energy bill increases!
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.