Energy policy U-turns in 2015 may have lost the UK its lead in paving the way to a low carbon economy. A report published today by six of Britain’s leading development and environment organisations suggests that confidence in the UK’s domestic low carbon industries is falling, causing its global ranking and market share to drop. The UK no longer leads worldwide markets like it used to, something the authors say could have a negative impact on the country.
Analysis published today suggests that as the world’s economy shifts to low carbon, there are worrying signs that the UK is losing its lead. Consequently, it risks missing out on the sizeable economic opportunity of new global investment.
It is predicted that $1,900 billion will be spent worldwide on low carbon generation, energy efficiency and carbon capture by 2030. The UK previously led these markets, exporting low carbon services and expertise to the world’s major emerging economies.
The analysis reveals that:
- The UK’s infrastructure pipeline shows increasing focus on high carbon projects: high carbon infrastructure spending has grown from 13 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent in 2016 while low carbon spending is falling.
- Major policy U-turns in 2015 mean that UK domestic investment has slowed or gone in reverse in key development areas such as building insulation, onshore renewables and carbon capture and storage.
It concludes that to restore the UK as a market leader the government must:
- Support low carbon industry at home.
- Champion UK low carbon experts and projects overseas, positioning the UK as an expert business partner in low carbon delivery.
- Retain the UK’s competitive edge by supporting innovation in low carbon technologies.
- Continue to raise global climate ambitions, maintaining the UK’s position as an international climate leader.
Lord Mandelson, President of Policy Network and Chairman of Global Counsel, said: “The global low carbon transformation will be one of the big drivers of the world economy in the 21st Century. At COP21 in Paris, the UK government showed bold global leadership. This analysis highlights it needs to demonstrate equally bold leadership to make sure decarbonisation isn’t a missed opportunity for business and prosperity in the UK.”
Sir John Armitt, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: “The Paris Accord sends a strong and clear message on the need for low carbon infrastructure and what we need to achieve by 2050. This is positive – a real turning point – and sets industry on a path towards a common global goal. Change on such a radical scale will however bring challenges. To lead the challenge we need the right combination of new technology, together with clear and stable government policies and incentives.”
Lord Barker, former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said: “To succeed in a world rapidly shifting to a low carbon economy, the UK needs more internationally competitive and innovative clean industries. To achieve this, we need to super charge our climate and energy strategy to create an even more attractive investment environment in which innovation and the entrepreneurs of the future can thrive.”
Adam Bruce, former Chairman of UK Offshore Wind Programme Board and global head of corporate affairs at Mainstream Renewable Power, said: “This report shows clearly that the UK is in danger of losing its leading position in the global race to build a vibrant low carbon economy. It is clearly in the interests of UK plc to secure as much as possible of the multi-billion dollar international low carbon goods and services market, and government policy needs to be fully aligned with this objective.”
John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said: “The latest reports have been unanimous in declaring 2015 a record year for investment in renewables, with developing countries now overtaking affluent ones on the fast lane to a clean energy world. Millions of jobs and billions of pounds of investments are up for grabs globally, yet the UK government is now backtracking on the very policies that have given this country a head start. The UK has already done much of the heavy-lifting and pioneering on clean energy. It would be a huge loss and a missed opportunity if Britain ended up watching from the side-lines whilst others reap the rewards of the low carbon revolution we’ve helped to spark.”
David Nussbaum, Chief Executive of WWF-UK, said: “Low carbon growth is the only option if the UK is to meet its emissions targets and retain its position as a leader in the global green economy. Yet some Ministers have sent confusing messages about their commitment to green energy and technologies. That’s why it’s vital the government now agrees a strong fifth carbon budget, and backs it up with an emissions reduction plan setting out exactly how we’ll build low carbon solutions into the DNA of UK Plc.”
Loretta Minghella, Chief Executive of Christian Aid, said: “The Paris Agreement has invigorated the global transition to a low carbon economy and new technology is coming down the infrastructure pipeline. Developing countries are helping set the pace, with the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative and India’s Solar Alliance outlining ambitious plans to ramp up clean energy. The UK can either ride this wave or be swept away by it. As a nation with a history of innovation and global connections, Britain used to be a leader in clean technology development. It’s sad to see it stand by and let its position slide just as the sector takes off around the world. Everyone knows where the future is heading. It’s time Britain reclaimed its position as a global leader.”
Chris Bain, Director of CAFOD, said: “Renewable energy not only helps tackle climate change, it’s almost the most cost effective way to help the one in five people worldwide who don’t have access to electricity. Richer countries now must help developing countries get the energy needed for development without locking them in to using outdated, polluting fossil fuel systems. The Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement set us on the path to a new carbon future; the UK government must now deliver on its promises.”
Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of RSPB, said: “This analysis shows that the UK simply can’t afford to ignore the growing global demand for low carbon energy solutions. The RSPB recently set out ways by which we can deliver the renewable energy future we need in harmony with nature. Investing in innovation means we will be leading by example in transitioning to a low carbon economy, essential for people and for wildlife.”
Matthew Spencer, Director of Green Alliance, said: “World markets are becoming low carbon faster than anyone predicted, partly because of UK diplomatic leadership on carbon reduction. But if the UK wants to maintain its share of international trade in energy services, construction and transport technology it will have to shore up domestic demand. British businesses will only maintain their international competitiveness if they have stable home markets for zero carbon buildings, power plant and vehicles.”
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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