What will business look like in the future and who are our future leaders?
This is the next instalment in our series speaking with a group of young people who are making waves in sustainability. All 12 are scholars on Forum for the Future’s renowned master’s course in leadership for sustainable development.
Adam Lewthwaite’s initial interest in climate change developed into a wider interest in sustainability and sustainable leadership as he learnt more about the problems we face. Here, he tells us about some of the key lessons he has picked up over the past year.
Tell us about your experience on the Forum for the Future master’s course. What have your placements involved?
I decided upon the Forum for the Future course because of it’s mix between placements and lectures, and I have not been disappointed. The opportunity to apply learning into real-life situations has been invaluable, ranging from: practical applications such as Forum’s innovation labs, to looking at the application of theoretical studies around leadership.
During my placements I have been based at Sainsbury’s working on food waste, Interface looking at staff engagement, Brighton and Hove city council to research potential renewable energy projects, and finally Ethex to work on a quarterly financial reporting framework. This wide spread of projects within different organisation types provides a great insight into different company cultures, their approaches as well as ways of working.
Where does your interest in sustainability come from?
During my geography degree, I concentrated my studies on climate change and modelling future climates. Through these classes I discovered the true severity that humans’ impacts were having on climate change, and the current and potential impacts that this change is creating on the planet and therefore human society. Since this initial realisation, my interest has grown from climate change to the need for sustainability in all areas of our lives.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given during your course?
It is hard to pinpoint one piece of advice. The course is a learning curve, taking you through a journey of understanding from very different angles and approaches to hopefully produce a well-rounded sustainability leader. However, for me the key concept that I will take from the course is to take the time to reflect on what you are doing, why things are going well or not, and to make sure that you take those thoughts and learning forward.
What’s most important business lesson you’ve learnt?
The importance of leadership within any team to unite people and help them to strive towards a unified goal. Until this course, I understood leadership was important but did not appreciate variations of leaders and leadership from traditional top-down to multilateral leadership.
I have also come to understand the importance of leadership within sustainability in a business context, where we often have to deal with difficult problems with no clear-cut answers, working across business from a matrix point of view bringing everyone together from a variety of disciplines to find solutions and implement ideas.
What one idea do you think could change the world for the better?
Sustainability being taught comprehensively through the education system. A greater understanding of the positives and negatives of our actions from a young age, evidence of successful business models both private, public and charitable/NGO sector, so that it is seen as pivotal in all business, not just a secondary thought.
What do you see of the future in terms of sustainability, business and the environment?
Sustainability in business is currently mostly seen as viable only when there is a financial business case to make it so. I see in a future of increased resource scarcity, and consumer-driven want for change, that the business case for sustainability becomes easier and easier to make, until the sustainable option is seen as an attractive option, not just financially but also due to the multiple external factors that it will include.
Where will you be in 10 years’ time?
I will be working for a company that is pushing the cutting edge of sustainable innovation. There are many companies who are driving sustainability issues forward, being vanguards for best practice and encouraging the rest of the business world to follow them or be left behind. I want to be a leader within sustainability in my place of work, and in order to do this have to engage with and motivate those I work with internally within the business and bring together an understanding of sustainability principles in the context of the workplace I am in, driving everyone forward towards goals in this area.
Success to me will be achieving the goals I have helped to put in place and making a really positive impact on the business and wider social, economic or environmental impacts it has, also having an engaged work force all fighting for these same goals and who are ‘bought in’ to the sustainability goals.
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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