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#COP21: Did it change the world?

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Seb Beloe of WHEB Group writes on the WHEB Blog (republished with kind permission). After 12 formal negotiating days attended by 150 heads of state and several thousand negotiators and with a supporting cast of 450 mayors, companies, NGOs and investors what did the Paris climate negotiations actually achieve and does it matter?

We might not go as far as the UK’s Guardian newspaper which described the deal as ‘The world’s greatest diplomatic success’, but our view is that the 31 page agreement is nonetheless an extremely important milestone in the global effort to tackle climate change. Coming 18 years after the previous agreement in Kyoto, the Paris agreement achieves a number of important milestones.

Firstly, a long-term greenhouse gas reduction target is now formally adopted by the world’s nations. Granted it is not actually a number, but is expressed in rather convoluted language as ‘a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases from 2050’. But in essence it means no net emissions from this time.

Secondly, the ambition level has actually been raised with the objective to keep global temperatures ‘well below’ 2ºC and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5ºC. Few were anticipating a stricter target coming out of the conference.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a legally binding process to review and report on efforts to achieve national targets. Critically this process obliges countries to consider formally whether to strengthen their targets and policies every five years.

And finally, $100bn of annual climate finance was also secured to help poorer countries adapt to inevitable climate change and to support efforts to mitigate further climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Weight-watchers for countries

The so-called ratchet and review process is seen as perhaps the single most critical piece in the new deal as it is this mechanism that will help put pressure on countries to deliver – and hopefully increase – their own voluntary emission targets. Currently, aggregated domestic and regional targets volunteered in advance of Paris put the world on a course to 2.7ºC. Still far too much and so this mechanism is needed to help ratchet up the national targets. One commentator likened this process to a version of ‘weight-watchers’ where countries, publicly reporting on their progress, are subject to peer pressure that rewards outperformers and brings global opprobrium to the laggards. This process has already worked well in securing the 187 voluntary national commitments in advance of Paris.

Investment implications

So what does this mean for the investment community? While the issue has been reasonably well-covered in the mainstream media, still relatively little investment research has been done interpreting the Agreement for the investment community.

In truth this is understandable, as the short term impact of the agreement is muted. Ultimately the Paris agreement is focused on the governance of how the world’s countries will move to tackle climate change. It does not contain country or regional greenhouse gas reduction targets, a feature that has led some environmentalists and academics to describe it as a ‘fraud’ and a ‘fake’. But after the failing of the Kyoto Protocol, this was never a realistic proposition. The real impact, for investors, businesses and indeed the world more generally comes with the policies and targets adopted by sovereign states. These can be expected to be refined and implemented over the coming years.

Short fossil fuels, long renewables

Having said that, the Paris Agreement clearly helps to cement the long-term trajectory of the world away from fossil fuels and towards low carbon sources of power particularly renewables and nuclear. For many investors this trajectory is already abundantly visible, but for those for whom it was not, the Paris Agreement serves to tip the balance further in favour of these low carbon technologies. In fact, a quick read of the main national plans, known in UN jargon as INDCs, reveals just how much the energy sector will change over the next fifteen years, with solar photovoltaics in poll position. The International Energy Agency for example believes that over $16 trillion will be invested in renewables and energy efficiency over this period.

The financial and business communities

Amid the horse-trading and late night negotiating that is part and parcel of these negotiations, one other seismic shift was clearly apparent. In previous summits the private sector has either been absent or, led by the fossil fuel industries, has worked to undermine any form of agreement. In Paris, the role of the private sector – extending even to oil and gas businesses – was to support a strong deal.  Laurent Fabius, the urbane French Foreign Minister and Chair of the conference singled out the financial sector in particular by proclaiming that “The financial industry is much more present at COP 21… You are major players and we congratulate you.”

The Paris Agreement though is just the start. The hard work of securing radically lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades lies ahead.

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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