Tom Revell looks into the Cambridge Business and Sustainability Programme – in the year in which it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
The Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme (BSP) at the University of Cambridge runs seminars across the world – from Cambridge to Cape Town, Melbourne to São Paulo – educating business leaders on the challenges and opportunities that sustainability represents.
“We’re not out there to tell people all about the doom and gloom, but to make sure that the people tasked with making significant decisions over our collective future actually understand what is changing and what the outcomes of their decisions might be,” explains Aris Vrettos, director of open programmes.
This year marks the BSP’s 20th anniversary. It was launched shortly after the first Rio Earth Summit of 1992, shaped by the vision of its patron, the Prince of Wales. The prince handpicked the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) to run the initiative.
Though the programme now has just under 2,500 alumni, Vrettos talks of a warm, family feeling; of a co-operating network that long outlives the seminars.
These alumni – predominantly senior executives, with a number of policymakers and NGO representatives also among them – leave with an understanding of how sustainability and profitability can be reconciled.
When the programme began, much of the conversation around sustainability consisted of NGOs and banner-waving environmentalists telling indifferent businessmen what they shouldn’t be doing. Now there is co-operation, engagement.
Businesses today dominate the sustainability space. This is, of course, not all down to the BSP, but such a pioneering initiative and the imitators it inspired surely helped. Many of the programme’s alumni return to their organisations inspired to lead action, taking the debate to the boardroom.
Quietly, out of the public eye, the BSP has for 20 years produced a steady stream of sustainability-savvy businesspeople.
“Many of those individuals, who are key decision makers, had a profound experience during the programme”, Vrettos says.
“They’ve come through a personal experience, whereby the spectrum and the opportunity of sustainability has become clear.”
As the wider world begins to face up to the consequences of our years of living dangerously, there is no knowing how important the programme’s work will prove to be.
But what exactly do these sustainability ‘agents’ learn? Presumably for some newcomers, their first port of call is to ask what sustainability is?
“In the beginning of the BSP, people spent hour and hours, days and days, trying to define sustainability”, Vrettos says.
“You can see it as an approach, you can see it as a state, you can see it as a way of thinking. I prefer to look at it as a challenge, and a challenge means both risk and opportunity.”
The risks, of course, are considerable. You would think that supporting a global population expected to reach 9 billion in the mid-century with a finite amount of land and water, dwindling natural resources and a climate heading towards catastrophe would be enough of a challenge. But this is not all.
“We must do that in a way that is much more inclusive and supports our development objectives, such as bringing people out of poverty”, Vrettos adds.
“How do we prosper and develop in those circumstances? That is an immense challenge.
True to his word though, Vrettos insists it is not all doom and gloom: “The good news is that it’s clear we can do it. The restrictions are not physical or technological. They are mostly socio-political.”
Which leads us to the opportunity. Even without referring to moral obligations or the risk that climate change will pose to today’s business models, sustainability is not a difficult sell.
“In my experience, most business leaders respond positively to the opportunity.
“If they haven’t already been through the process of ‘enlightenment’, if they haven’t been through the process of really understanding these issues, then it is the business opportunity of sustainability that provides the best way to engage people.”
Business leaders that get sustainability gain a competitive advantage, Vrettos argues. They understand the challenges that they will face and how to respond, positioning themselves ahead of the curve.
Providing genuinely sustainable services or products also creates more appealing brands and allows organisations to “redefine the market”, creating entirely new product lines and generating revenues from new areas they hadn’t thought possible.
Vrettos’s point is supported by many recent reports and analyses, which demonstrate that sustainability-minded companies and investments often outperform industry averages.
It is a good job, too. Without business on side, it will be impossible to tackle the challenges our civilisation will face in the coming decades.
“Given that most of the economic activity on the planet is business driven, we have to include business. Business has also built a lot of the capacity to take those challenges on”, Vrettos says.
“And we’re not just talking about societies and companies becoming a bit more sustainable, we’re talking about being truly sustainable – that’s where we have to get within the next 15 to 20 years.”
And in those 20 years, what will the BSP hopefully have achieved? When the programme’s 40th anniversary comes around, where will it be?
“Somewhere sunnier,” Vrettos says.
“We want to grow; we are very encouraged by the reception that the programme has had internationally. We physically cannot run it from Cambridge alone and have the impact we want to achieve.”
The BSP’s global plan includes expansion to new shores – India, Latin America, the Middle East – inspiring and harnessing the passion, energy and leadership of businessmen and women around the world.
“We have a responsibility to inform the transition, the transformation of how business interacts with society and the environment so we have to be bold.”
“My vision for the BSP is that we are transformative enough in those key regions that we can really serve as a catalyst for transition, and play a major role in helping business leaders go from where we are today to a sustainable future.”
To apply to attend one of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme’s forthcoming seminars, visit its website.
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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