All things are connected. This sentiment, which goes right to the heart of sustainability, was the central theme at a recent Intelligence Squared event.
Water, Food, Energy, Climate: Smart Solutions for 2050 took place at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. Supported by oil giant Shell (I know – I’ll get to that later), it brought together four leading thinkers to discuss what the world needs to do to avert food riots, water wars and energy crises when its population hits the expected 9 billion mark in 2050.
Unlike most Intelligence Squared debates, which follow a standard for-and-against format, Monday’s event was described to me as a “panel with friction”. The four panellists, each with their own area of expertise, were likely to agree on some things and disagree on others.
Master of ceremonies was Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). He opened by describing the interconnectedness of the event’s four themes – water, food, energy and climate – and the “stress nexus” that runs throughout them all.
The first panellist to deliver an opening speech was Gabrielle Walker, a writer and broadcaster specialising in energy and climate change. She echoed Taylor’s remarks, saying we shouldn’t be looking at any of the four areas individually. Her analogy was that of the children’s game whack-a-mole – saying that problems will continue popping up (like the moles) unless you tackle them as one.
Following Walker was Jay Rayner – the popular writer, journalist and broadcaster perhaps best known for being a judge on BBC1’s Masterchef and resident food expert on The One Show. Rayner opened by pointing out the irony in event sponsor Shell’s introductory video about food, water, energy and climate problems.
The oil giant’s involvement was a continued source of questioning from the audience all evening. The panel agreed that the fossil fuels it burns are to blame for climate change, but added that they were also responsible for much of human development. Walker went on to say later on that scientists, the media and politicians are not going to fix any of the world’s problems and that if big corporations don’t help, then we’re “completely screwed“.
After receiving support from many in the audience for his point about Shell, Rayner went on to speak specifically about food. He said the debate shouldn’t always be about food miles and where in the world food is grown; we should be talking about how we grow our food instead.
His latest book, A Greedy Man In A Hungry World: How (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong, contains a chapter called ‘Supermarkets are not evil’ followed by another titled ‘Supermarkets are evil’. He explained that big supermarkets are not always bad, and often necessary, pointing out that without them, shopping would take so much longer (there’s nothing romantic about watching a man chop a lump of butter off a block, he said, or words to that effect).
Third to speak was Mark Lynas, the author and environmental campaigner on areas like climate change, biotechnology and nuclear power. He began by saying how the environmental movement had “demonised” genetically modified (GM) crops in the same way as it had nuclear power – yet both represent huge solutions to environmental problems.
Lynas has always been open about his shift in stance from anti-GM to pro-GM. He said that in his previous life working at an NGO, he realised that he was urging politicians and businesses to look at what the science tells us about climate change, but then not saying the same about GM crops. He added it was therefore important to debate facts – and not the myths spread by the anti-GM lobby.
Jeremy Woods, an expert in bioenergy and biorenewables from Imperial College London, was the final panellist to take to the floor. He explained that one of the main benefits of renewable energy was that it connects us with the environment – and none more so than biofuels. Answering a question from the audience, he described the choice between growing crops for fuel or food as a “false dichotomy”.
The event was then opened up to the audience. Those who asked particularly good questions were rewarded by Taylor with a stress ball (as in the ‘stress nexus’). He amusingly ended up handing them to the woman who asked the very first question, a man with a particularly difficult-to-pronounce name and another woman who asked whether humans will still be around in 1,000 years.
Asked about organic food, Rayner said such a tag doesn’t necessarily mean a product will be better for the environment. Woods noted the difficulty in reducing fossil fuel usage. If we want to mitigate climate change we have to make fossil fuels more expensive, he said, but if we do that, we’re harming the developing world. Meanwhile, Walker noted that the education of women was perhaps the most important tool in reducing population growth.
The debate was interesting and important. It may have benefitted from input from those not in the sustainability space, but there was enough difference of opinion among the four panellists to make it lively.
There are real and serious problems in water, food, energy and climate – and this event by no means had all the answers. But what it did was create vital discussion, which can only be useful.
That said, if some of the solutions on offer fail to live up to their expectation, Walker suggested a novel – if slightly disgusting – idea to solve both obesity and the fuel crisis: liposuction. She was given a stress ball for the weird suggestion. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
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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