Stephen Farrant, Director of Environment and Marketplace Solutions, sets out his vision for how Business in the Community addresses the vital environmental issues affecting business and society. This post first appeared on the BITC blog and is published with their kind permission.
By any measure, 2015 is a massive year for the environmental agenda. The much-anticipated Sustainable Development Goals have just been launched, to be followed by the UN Climate Talks (COP21) in Paris in December.
When you see the Pope teaming up with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Naomi Klein, you know that something big is taking place. Public awareness of the need for change is increasing, even if slowly. Governments are legislating, witness Obama’s Clean Power Plan, as well as China’s new environmental protection laws which include provision for unlimited fines on illegal industrial polluters and encouragment of transition to more of a circular economy.
For me, mobilising effectively on the environmental agenda is the challenge of our generation. It is a challenge integrally linked not just to continued economic growth and prosperity, but also to the social justice agenda of jobs, education, and equality of opportunity. Take just the one example of the growing body of research that links the current refugee crisis with climate change. Five years of unprecedented drought in Syria, from 2006 to 2010, was undoubtedly a contributory factor in that country’s social dislocation, civil war and the subsequent rise of extremism. (Even if leading newspapers ranging from the Independent to Time to the Guardian have been criticised for daring to make the connection).
But where should we start to address such complex, systemic challenges? As the age of austerity in recent years has reminded us all too clearly, economies need to grow in order to provide social stability, employment and the tax revenues needed to fund public services. But, just as governments around the world struggle to live within their means financially, so western civilisation has done a very poor job in recent years of living within the carrying capacity of Earth. Both science and common sense tell us that continual growth along the lines of “business as usual” is not ecologically possible on a finite planet.
This is not a new debate – as far back as 1968, Robert Kennedy was highlighting the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of success. The publication of “The Limits to Growth” in 1972 brought the dilemma into sharper relief. It was more recently explored by Professor Tim Jackson in his work, “Prosperity Without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet“, while our colleagues at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership have gone further in “Re-wiring the Economy.” So, as we look to the future, we need to shift the debate from the simple quantum of growth to the quality of growth. We must focus on moving from an unsustainable, linear model of growth to smart growth.
BITC is already very strong in so many ways, but we are currently not on track to meet our overall goal of a fairer society and a more sustainable future, because we have not tackled these fundamental questions laying at the heart of our mission. To get there, we need to re-double our focus on the environmental agenda as an integral part of our mission, and show how “smart growth” provides opportunities for the business community to lead the way in re-thinking energy, water and waste, creating a circular economy. This is as much about job creation and commercial advantage as about de-carbonisation and intelligent resource utilisation, challenging and urgent as those tasks are.
We need business leaders demonstrating how to lead on this, along with putting pressure on governments to be braver in setting ambitious long-term policy. As Paul Polman of Unilever has stated bluntly, “If we don’t tackle climate change, we won’t achieve economic growth.”
The notion of smart growth therefore needs to be at the heart of our new environmental campaign. It will provide practical support to enable businesses and the communities they operate in to thrive within a smart (re-wired) economy, leading to effective and circular use of resources, nurturing of healthy ecosystems and preparation for climate change.
We’ll continue doing what BITC has always done best – engaging businesses on practical steps to address the big challenges, and inspiring others to act. We know how to do this; just look at The Prince’s Mayday Network back in 2007 as a call to action on climate change; or how BITC’s partnership with the global hotel industry (ITP) brought 23 companies together to standardise how the hotel industry measures and communicates its carbon emissions, or how our Water Taskforce brought together food retailers and utilities companies to address the issue of fats, oils and greases choking drains by giving away over 200,000 fat-catching devices in 2014. Our new engagement plan to help businesses make a reality of the circular economy (launching in late 2015) will take us further. And then we need to do so much more.
The good news is there are plenty of business solutions out there that can move us forwards; Marks & Spencer’s Plan A leading to carbon neutrality, Veolia’s generation of 22% of its income from circular economy solutions, Jaguar Land Rover’s closed loop waste recovery and aluminium recycling programmes, Tesla’s introduction of efficient household batteries for storing renewable energy. Business is coming together as never before on this issue (for instance through the We Mean Business and theRe100 coalitions). There is no doubt that it has a vital role to play, from using its R&D capabilities to innovate, to mobilising massive global workforces to creating demand among a new generation of customers.
The sharp fall in Volkswagen’s share price and the brand damage it has suffered this week, following revelations that the company had deceived regulators on emissions tests, is a timely reminder that environmental blunders hurt companies financially. It underlines that the change we need to see also requires businesses to be very clear about the social purpose of their products and services, and to build lasting trust in their brands in an age of ubiquitous information. This is the focus of BITC’s Marketplace Leadership Team. Innovation is key; as the inspiring Solar Impulse project reminded us earlier this year, “It wasn’t the people selling candles who invented the light-bulb.”
The business community is coming together to put their weight against environmental challenges as well as societal ones. Time is short. In this 30th year of the Prince of Wales’ Presidency of BITC, we must embrace this unique opportunity as conveners and as campaigners. Societal wellbeing and economic performance, and the priceless natural environment, depend on this.
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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