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Blue & Green Marbles Finalist: Catherine Howarth, CEO ShareAction

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Catherine Howarth joined ShareAction in July 2008, having previously been the founder and lead organiser of West London Citizens. Earlier in her career she was Senior Researcher at the New Policy Institute. Catherine is a board member of Green Alliance and of the Scott Trust, owner of The Guardian, serving on the Scott Trust’s investment committee. She was a Member Nominated Trustee of The Pensions Trust (the multi-employer pension scheme for the UK’s not-for-profit sector) for five years until Spring 2013. She served for four years on The Pensions Trust’s Investment Committee.

In 140 characters or less – what is ShareAction?

ShareAction is a charity leading a movement to promote Responsible Investment and give savers a voice in the investment system.

ShareAction started life as FairPensions which was born following People & Planet’s ‘Ethics for USS’ campaign. What was the driving thought behind founding the organisation – what gap did it fill?

There was absolutely no civil society organisation acting as a watchdog on the pensions industry. It’s a huge industry in the UK, the second largest in the world after the USA in terms of assets under management, and millions of people have a stake in it. It’s crucial that an organisation like ShareAction exists to keep an eye on it, to make sure that it’s acting in the best interests of those millions of pension fund members and acting in a way that encourages sustainable business behaviour. So that’s the gap that we filled when we set up.

Who does ShareAction primarily work with?

ShareAction works with a broad array of stakeholders. This ranges from the relationships we have with pension funds and asset managers, and all kinds of people inside the investment system, to policymakers and regulators, to citizens and institutions whose retirement savings or assets are invested in the system. Part of our function is to create a better dialogue and more connections between people on the inside and the outside of the system.

What difference does ShareAction want to make?

We deeply believe in the possibility of an investment system that serves savers, society and the environment better than the current system does today. If we unlock the huge potential the investment system has to drive positive change, it could solve some of the deepest and most complicated problems that we collectively face, whilst also securing much better outcomes for people who are on modest incomes and put money into the system in the hope of retiring one day with a decent quality of life.

What have been the barriers to making that difference?

We face quite a few barriers – some from within the investment system and some from outside it. From inside the system, we continue to battle against a narrow interpretation of fiduciary duty, which has held back Responsible Investment from claiming a central place in the way the system works. There are also lots of vested interests and perverse incentives for people inside the system that hold back Responsible Investment; and we also think that the unaccountable governance of many pension funds and limited rights that savers have to ask questions are big barriers to change.

On the outside of the system, we have to acknowledge that our work is just one of many pressing issues that concern ordinary people; it is a challenge to get people enthusiastic and engaged with something that seems as technical and distant as the investment system. Creative, surprising communication is essential.

Who’s helping you overcome those barriers?

ShareAction is building a diverse movement of people demanding change from inside and outside the system. It’s only when we have a critical mass of people committed to change that we’ll have the power to overcome those barriers. So we’re building that movement and its stronger month by month, but we also work hard to come up with well researched and smart policy solutions to address failings in the system. A lot of that is in our Manifesto for Responsible Investment, which we published in 2014.

You recently came in the top three of the inaugural Blue & Green Marbles awards. We meet, interview and profile significantly more senior women in the sustainable sectors we cover, than we do in conventional sectors. From your own perspective does gender play a role in having an overriding commitment to sustainability? And if so, why?

As a woman I’m incredibly proud that women are so prominent in the field of Responsible and sustainable investment. Of course I’m a huge champion of breaking down some of the barriers that exist to women claiming a fair share of the roles in the senior echelons of the mainstream investment sector. An important stream of our work at ShareAction is exposing the gender balance inside pension firms and asset managers. These are the teams that make big decisions about how our savings are invested and it’s so important that they are diverse, not least because there’s so much accumulating evidence that organisations with diverse leadership teams deliver more for their customers and beneficiaries, and are more profitable. So I’d say: let’s keep the great profile of women in the sustainability sector, and fight for a better representation of women in the mainstream investment sector.

How can people – individuals and organisations – find out more about ShareAction?

On our beautiful new website soon to be launched – watch this space! You can also follw us on twitter @ShareActionUK and search ‘ShareAction’ on Facebook. You can get in touch with us at info@shareaction.org to find out how you can join a Pension Power team that’s fighting to make sure your provider is a truly accountable and responsible investor.

What’s on the agenda for this year at ShareAction?

This year we’re looking forward to another phenomenal season of holding boards accountable at company AGMs. We’ll be raising an array of different issues that we know companies have the power to address – from championing renewable electric power in the corporate sector to using the skills, creativity and logistics that companies have to support refugees.

We’re excited to be launching in June in Berlin our European network of civil society organisations that are interested in sustainable capital markets.

We will also continue to press UK and European policymakers for legislation and regulations that give people with pension savings a voice in the investment system and requires pension funds and other giant investors to invest sustainably with an eye to long-term success.

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/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

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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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

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.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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