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Local and European elections: energy and climate preview

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On Thursday May 22, Britons will take to the polls to vote for who they want to represent them in their local councils and in the European parliament.

Building up to the decisive day, we’re looking at each of the main parties’ sustainability, energy and climate change policies.

Conservatives

The Conservative party insists it is the only party capable of delivering “real change” in Europe this year. It has promised to return more powers to Britain and deliver an eventual in-out referendum.

However, the party’s European manifesto acknowledges the important role that the EU must play in efforts to curb climate change. The Conservatives pledge to support the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), as they believe it is the most cost-effective means for countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

They also say they will push for EU countries to agree to targets that would demand emission cuts of at least 40% by 2030, though they oppose binding renewable energy targets on the grounds that nuclear and shale gas have an important role to play in decarbonisation.

In this vein, the Conservatives also want to work with European partners such as Poland to exploit the continents shale gas resource, despite concerns over the safety of fracking.

Looking to energy security and with one eye on customers’ bills, the Conservatives also want to push the EU to create a single energy market for the entire continent.

Labour

Energy has been a popular topic of Ed Miliband’s, with Labour promising to freeze household bills at home. In Europe, Labour also supports the idea of a single energy market, which they say could tackle rising prices and climate change simultaneously.

Miliband’s party argues that the Tories have failed on renewable energy, costing jobs – the manifesto describes the green economy as “a vital industry” – and threatening Britain’s energy security and compromising efforts to cut emissions.

In order to take effective action on climate change, Labour insists that the UK must remain a part of the EU.

Liberal Democrats 

The self-styled ‘party of IN’ unsurprisingly agrees that Britain’s best chance of leading the fight against climate change is as a member of Europe. They say that, from within the European parliament, they will pressure Britain’s neighbours to adopt stronger climate targets and call for a strengthening of the ETS, providing certainty to renewable energy investors.

The Lib Dems also argue that being part of the European Union gives the British green industry a much bigger market for cleantech exports, promising more jobs and more growth.

Turning to the natural environment, the Lib Dems also want a revision of EU development policies to support the international goals of at least halving the rate of loss of all natural habitats and ending net deforestation by 2020.

They also pledge to encourage sustainable consumption throughout the union, promoting energy efficiency and sustainable commodities. 

Green party

Adopting the most radical stance on energy and climate change, the Green party says it would quicken Europe’s transition from a fossil fuel-powered economy to one with renewable energy at the centre.

Within the EU, the Greens would encourage European incentives for home insulation, in order to improve national energy efficiency; vote for stronger climate targets; and support a ban on fracking, deep sea oil drilling and new nuclear power stations. 

They would also call for EU-wide infrastructure for renewable energy, such as a European super grid to share electricity capacity to maximise the continent’s resources.

Another subject on which the Greens differ from the mainstream parties is on the ETS. They argue that the scheme has failed outright, and must be replaced with new solutions, including legally binding national targets and a ban on the extraction of excessive quantities of fossil fuels. 

UKIP 

UKIP’s European election manifesto urges voters to “create an earthquake” by opting for the Euro-sceptics, but the party’s policies on energy and climate change would likely cause an entirely different kind of natural disaster.

Dismissing scientific consensus, the party has pledged to scrap the 2008 Climate Change Act, “scrap all green taxes and wind turbine subsidies” and keep coal-fired power plants open, arguing that gas and nuclear are the future.

Further reading:

Political parties on the spot: how do we make our democracy sustainable?

One year until the general election: what’s in store for energy and the environment?

Labour urged to take ‘equal and sustainable society’ vision to next election

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

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.

Driver Reduction?

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

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.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

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.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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