A sustainable democracy is transparent, accountable and representative. We can change ours by voting for policies at elections – and not personalities.
This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014.
A sustainable democracy adapts to the changing demands of an active electorate. In a sustainable democracy, we would expect to see voter turnout rates consistently above 80%, and the popularity of policies would reflect the balance of power of the parties. Does that sound radical? I don’t think so.
The magic ingredient that a sustainable democracy has that other democracies don’t is a high degree of transparency. More specifically, a high degree of transparency in three vital areas: vision, policies and performance. Only when transparency is achieved in all three can a democracy become sustainable, restoring power back to the people, and making the government truly accountable. It’s a simple idea, yet for all the democratic privileges we enjoy over other nations, it’s still a long way from describing our current process.
The idea of vision – declaring the kind of society that we need, and why, in order to thrive – doesn’t feature in political discussion. The simple reason is it kills votes. Politicians won’t disclose their vision for society because they fear voters will disagree with it, and because knowing the broader context of a policy can easily reduce its appeal. For example, while you might support outsourcing NHS services in the name of better care provision or cost-cutting, what if you knew the ultimate goal was to replace the NHS with a private health system – would you support it then? For politicians eager to get into power and stay there, having a vision is too risky. But without a vision, how can we vote for the policies to achieve it?
Policies, however, are part of everyday discussion in the media. This would be a good thing if it wasn’t so difficult to keep track of them. The media sways from one hot topic to the next, and parties announce policies without any real schedule or consistency. The bigger parties have manifestos but they certainly don’t promote them, and come election time they’re overshadowed by personality battles, party bickering and media spin. As a result, how many of us know which policies belong to which parties? For those that make it to the ballot box, do we really know what kind of change we’re voting for?
And what about transparency in government performance? In the run up to an election, there is no meaningful way to compare what our elected representatives have achieved against what they promised (including coalition agreements). We get different views through the eyes of different media organisations but we don’t get a clear, independent and unbiased view of it all. As long as we can’t measure their performance, the government can’t be accountable to it. And until our government is fully accountable, we won’t truly own our democracy.
So where do we start? How do we make vision, policies and performance more transparent, and in so doing make our democracy sustainable? In my view it’s simple; certainly not easy, but it is simple – and without question it is achievable. Here’s where to start.
Vote for policies
Until we know what a party stands for – the policies it promises to support – there is no point thinking about its track record or whether we like its leader. Sure, once we have an idea which party’s policies we prefer, considerations like credibility, track record or even chances of winning the seat become relevant to our decision making process. But only after we know what the policies are. Policies are what create change, so whichever party we decide to vote for, unless we know what its policies are we won’t know what kind of change we’re voting for.
This is exactly why I set up Vote for Policies. It’s a free service that makes it easy for everyone – regardless of age or level of political interest – to compare policies in a rational way, without bias from the media or our own preconceptions, and to use that information to make an independent decision about which party to vote for.
Don’t we need a vision first?
Yes, having a more transparent political vision remains a vital cog in making our democracy sustainable. I’d like to see more honest and open discussion about what kind of society our parties want to create now, but given the risk to politicians and the current low levels of engagement with politics, it’s probably not realistic in the short-term. However, by placing more focus on policies and manifestos, we are taking the first step towards achieving it.
With greater transparency of policies, and by focusing our political debate around them, it’s much easier to extend the discussion to vision. Not only because it tells parties we are paying attention to what matters, but it’s a simpler, less spin-able conversation that makes politics more accessible to a wider cross section of society which will create more demand for clarity from political manifestos.
What about accountability?
There’s an understandable argument that there’s no point focusing on policies because politicians don’t keep their word – manifestos aren’t relevant because governments aren’t accountable to them. So how do we make them accountable?
The idea of making manifestos legally binding will always get an enthusiastic hearing among some voters, myself included, but it’s too obviously a noose in which politicians won’t be placing their heads any time soon – and certainly not those already in power. But if we start by focusing on policies, we’re creating an implicit level of accountability by making it clear to our political parties that we’re paying attention to what they’re promising. From here it’s much easier to make a stronger case for further changes, so we’re also creating a platform for greater accountability in the future.
If we want to create a sustainable democracy – where politics is accessible to all, where we can debate the vision and policies for a society that will meet the challenges we face and where our government is accountable to its performance in a fair way – then we must create greater transparency. By starting with policies, we are taking the biggest leap possible towards achieving this, and at the same time starting to turn the cogs for even bigger change to come. The best thing of all is we can do it ourselves, and we can do it now.
Matt Chocqueel-Mangan is the founder of Vote for Policies.
Photo: Harrison Keely via freeimages.com
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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