On the heels of new findings that corporate influence is undermining climate policy progress globally and a U.S. Congressional call for an investigation into ExxonMobil, civil society is mounting a historic campaign to jettison polluters from climate policymaking.
The campaign and new global platform called Kick Big Polluters Out is being launched from Bonn during the final week of negotiations of theUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) before the highly anticipated meetings in Paris. The launch comes just days after global actions from Kenya to Colombia, Uganda to Sri Lanka called on delegations to stand firm against industry interference which has increased recently in the face of accelerating global action.
“Around the globe people are calling for action now. We don’t have time to waste; governments must act now,” said Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International, “There are too many lives at risk today to leave tomorrow up to the climate offenders that are driving the problem.”
The movement was bolstered Friday with the release of a report from InfluenceMap that exposes Big Oil’s true intentions in climate policy. The report, the first of its kind to compare Big Oil’s PR to the often contradictory lobbying and advocacy done on its behalf by its many front groups confirmed what many have known for some time: Big Oil has no intentions to walk the talk on climate change.
From direct sponsorship and cooptation of UNFCCC talks to external advisory commissions and initiatives, fossil fuel industry interference in policymaking is an obstacle at every level. On Friday, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative—an alliance between some of the world’s largest oil and gas producers—released a pro-oil report advocating for industry friendly“market-based” solutions. And, just weeks ago Shell and BHP Billiton announced a partnership with McKinsey Consulting to “advise” governments on climate policy. Both efforts have already been met with skepticism from environmental groups and the media alike.
Inside the UNFCCC, Big polluters like the fossil fuel industry and energy utilities have successfully institutionalized their influence of the process.In May, it was revealed that the next Conference of the Parties (COP 21) would be yet another “Corporate COP” with the announcement of a host of corporate sponsors including Engie, EDF and Suez Environnement. Suez Environnement, infamous for its dealings in water privatization, is partially owned by Engie, which profits from fracking operations around the world, putting it at direct odds with the advancement of the treaty. EDF and Engie’s current coal operations account for the equivalent of nearly half of France’s entire emissions.
Currently, industry involvement in the policymaking process is not only allowed, it’s encouraged, regardless of a corporation’s environmental track record. The Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), a joint project of the incoming and outgoing COP presidents, the Office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the UNFCCC Secretariat, encourages direct engagement with non-state actors—primarily identified as sub-national governments and corporations—as stakeholders in the policymaking process. To date, the LPAA involves over 1,100 corporationsincluding major fossil fuel corporations, transportation corporations and energy utilities. Such an initiative not only allows some of the world’s biggest polluters to greenwash their image, it gives them access, and leverage in the treaty process.
These tactics—cooptation, appropriation and PR posturing— are the same used by Big Tobacco to position itself on the side of health and stave off tobacco control action. The Kick Big Polluters Out campaign is rooted in the movement to rein in the tobacco industry during the development of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC, which came into force in 2005, contains a legally binding provision to mitigate the conflicts of interest the tobacco industry poses in the development and enforcement of public health and tobacco control policy.
Today’s official global platform launch in the run-up to Paris builds on the more than 350,000 people who have already called on their governments to take action. On Thursday, groups will hold an event in Bonn to discuss in detail, the impact corporate interference is having on the outcomes of national and international climate policy.
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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