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A Rough Ride to the Future: in conversation with James Lovelock



Phil Warren of Carbon Credentials recently watched an ‘in conversation’ session with James Lovelock to mark the opening of a new exhibition dedicated to the renowned scientist at the Science Museum in London. Here, he describes his experience.

James Lovelock is one of Britain’s most important living scientists. His work includes the invention of the electron capture detector (which made possible the detection of chlorofluorocarbons), the microwave oven, and perhaps most famously, the Gaia theory, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system that maintains its own habitability.

Lovelock’s extraordinary pursuit of science started when his parents first took him to the Science Museum in 1925 aged six. Eighty-eight years later, he still credits this moment as the time he knew he wanted to become a scientist. During his early years, he worked in both Britain and the US on a variety of projects, from researching the spread of illness in underground bomb shelters, to early cryogenics.

After the second world war, he worked with the Nobel prize-winning Archer Martin, who pioneered research in gas chromatography. Lovelock needed a small sample of fats analysed for his research. However, Martin’s equipment could not measure very small concentrations. Martin told Lovelock if he wanted the sample analysed then he would have to invent a better detector: and so he did.

This was the birth of the electron capture detector which would eventually be used to detect substances called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, which are known to destroy our ozone layer.

Soon after this invention, Lovelock was picked up by the Nasa space programme where he was part of a team looking for life on Mars. Lovelock instantly got off to a bad start by openly criticising the work of the other scientists looking for life.

Such was their disapproval that on a Tuesday morning Lovelock was hauled in front of a Nasa director, who told him that if he wanted to keep his job he would have to come up with a practical solution to finding life on Mars… by Friday.

Throughout the talk, Lovelock referred to necessity as the mother of invention. It is a statement that has held true all through his life and this time was no different.

He proposed that in order to find life, all you had to do was measure the composition of the atmosphere and look for a reduction in entropy. If its atmosphere is in equilibrium, there can be no life.

Lovelock was shown to be right that there was no life on Mars, yet his observations about the red planet had started to influence his thinking about planet Earth, where life thrives. This was the start of Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock observed, whilst looking at Earth, that the oxygen content must be regulated; if life can regulate the atmosphere, it must regulate the climate, so Earth must be a self-regulating system.

Initially his observations were attacked by some eminent deniers, including Richard Dawkins. However, environmental scientists now accept many of the basic principles associated with Gaia, and Lovelock’s contributions have been formally recognised.

The talk was absolutely fascinating and I would urge you to visit the Unlocking Lovelock exhibit. At the age of 94, his talk was punctuated with humour and highly interesting asides, yet he also possesses a steely determination.

He is well-known in the media for his views on the catastrophic effects that climate change will have on population and food security; he has also been vocal about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and, in his eyes, the politicisation of climate science. However, what really struck me about the evening was that, as I watched this remarkable scientist take the audience through his life and work, his thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm to understand the world is contagious.

As Lovelock points out in his latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future, the invention of the stream engine in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, and the subsequent rise of industry, was the start of a period of “accelerated evolution”. We now live in a time where information is driving huge advances, where data holds the tools needed for change.

We at Carbon Credentials are using this data to make informed decisions about how to help our clients tackle their energy consumption, carbon emissions and overcome compliance risk. This is an exciting time to be involved in data, especially sustainability data, and although there is a long way to go, our innovative services and insights are making a real difference.

Phil Warren is a data analyst at Carbon Credentials, on whose blog this article originally appeared. The Unlocking Lovelock exhibition at the Science Museum is open until April 2015. For more details, see here

Photo: Science Museum

Further reading:

Book review: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth – James Lovelock (2000)

All consuming: the real problem is what we do

Chemistry of the Earth‘s atmosphere

Building a sustainable global economy

Climate change? Let’s talk about…


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

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.

Driver Reduction?

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.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

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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