Lucy Siegle answers 20 questions on life, sustainability and everything.
A columnist with the Guardian and Observer and reporter on programmes like The One Show and Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, Siegle is the brains behind the acclaimed Observer Ethical Awards, which took place last week in London.
She was appointed a visiting professor in sustainable and ethical fashion at University of the Arts London in 2008 and is the author of three books, most recently 2010’s To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?
We want the world to be as blue and green tomorrow as it was yesterday. What’s your mission?
To convince everybody they have a vested interest in fighting for the environment – however disenfranchised they feel.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
At five I told my mum I wanted to be a dinner lady – I liked the tabard. Then I wanted to be in a symphony orchestra as I was very musical. Now, I have a dream of working for the Falmouth coastguard. I filmed there and it was pretty cool. They have co-ordinated rescues from every corner of the globe. They have an obligation to rescue British subjects carrying their distress device from anywhere in the world. That is an incredible responsibility. They are under threat from budget cuts. One day I’ll grow up…
How would your friends describe you?
Depends which ones you ask. Bossy (even on holiday) but very loyal.
What was your ‘road to Damascus moment’ in terms of sustainability?
It was more of a drip, drip, drip effect! Having been brought up to really love the natural world and think about resource use – especially through my grandad who was from a working class background in Bootle, Liverpool (proving that it’s nonsense that eco issues are only for wealthy or landed gentry) – I’d let it all slip.
I had friends who were much more politicised when I was about 16/17 and part of the rave/reclaim the streets movement and learned a lot about anti-corporate politics. Then of course there was No Logo. Ultimately however I found it all a bit hairy hippie until I saw businesses who were trying to normalise different ways of doing things: Neal’s Yard, Riverford, that sort of thing. I realised I could use my skills as a journalist/writer to pursue things I really cared about.
Who or what inspires you?
Last Wednesday was the Observer Ethical Awards so I have a long list of people who inspire me. I found many of the shortlisted entrants incredible especially Anne Power, a protestor who at 82 is one of the figureheads at the Barton Moss campaign, loves the ‘wit and energy’ of the younger campaigners. Frank Hewetson of Greenpeace, one of the so-called Arctic 30, spoke and was particularly inspiring.
Those guys have an extraordinary amount of responsibility on their shoulders, taking idealistic protestors into increasingly dangerous confrontations. I admire their judgement and courage. I have so much respect for people who make stuff with love and care and attention. (See my favourite quote below!).
What really grinds your gears?
Proselytising idiots who can’t see the bigger picture – especially green ones. People who don’t understand the role of impartiality in journalism or the importance of mainstreaming. They set environmental causes back by about 100 years.
Describe your perfect day.
A run, and a bit of South Devon beach. Lots of food. I spend many of my days in this way.
What do you see when you look out your window at home?
Well the other day I swear I saw the end of a weasel’s tail. I have also found weasel droppings on a bird table. I am totally obsessed. But mostly my home is my sister’s home in South London. Mainly squirrels and roses.
What do you like spending your money on?
What money? Really well-made clothes. These are my downfall.
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
I just went to Iceland for work – amazing work – to interview Bjork. Now I want to go and see the plate tectonics shift at Thingvellir.
What’s your favourite book?
Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce. I grew up four doors down from one of Joyce’s many houses in Bray, Wicklow, where the Christmas dinner scene is set.
What’s your favourite film?
Goodfellas. It’s brilliant.
You’re made prime minister. What’s the first thing you do?
Hand over to someone more strategic. I don’t like politics.
If you were stuck on a desert island, which famous person would you like to be stuck with and why?
I think Ray Mears would be helpful.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given? And the worst?
I love unnecessary advice. When I was moving to London to university as one of the squarest teenagers anybody has ever met, a friend of my parents rushed around to warn me I must never get into crack cocaine. I’ve always found that hilarious.
What would you like to be doing five years from now?
I don’t do plans unless it’s for clothes; I don’t buy anything that I can’t commit to wearing at least 30 times.
What’s your biggest regret?
I would’ve loved to have edited a really cool, mainstream sustainability publication. Was on the verge, but then came the financial crisis!
What one thing would you encourage readers to do to make their life more sustainable?
Compost. It’s a gateway to all sorts of behavioural change.
What’s the one idea that you think could change the world for the better?
I think the circular economy has enormous potential. But I also really liked the idea of personal carbon budgets – that died a death.
What’s your favourite quote?
Wendell Berry’s warning to us all. I take it very seriously and it informs a lot of what I do, including a shop, Siegle & Co, that my husband set up to sell the work of real craftsmen and reinstate the links between producer and consumer.
“The global economy institutionalises a global ignorance, in which producers and consumer cannot know or care about one another, and in which the histories of all products will be lost. In such a circumstance, the degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable.”
Lucy Siegle is a journalist focusing on the environment, sustainability and ethics, and is the founder of the Observer Ethical Awards.
Photo: Jon Craig photography, taken at the South West Fairtrade Business Awards 2014
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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