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Positive politics for the 21st century



The electorate is often highly sceptical of politicians and the Westminster, Holyrood, Pierhead and Belfast villages. But healthy scepticism has slipped into an unhealthy cynicism and apathy. To face the challenges of the 21st century, we need our democracy and politics to function effectively on a national and global stage.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014.  

The list of broken politics is long. The expenses scandal; cash for honours; cash for access; the breaking of manifesto promises; the dishonest use of statistics for political point scoring; endless spinning; opaque corporate lobbying and party funding all bring politics into disrepute. The fact that 35% of the electorate regularly don’t vote, even more in the case of the upcoming local and European elections, is worrying for those who believe in democracy. Politicians blame the voters, when in reality the blame is much closer to their own door.

The challenges we face are vast. Our decline as a global power in relative terms, rather than absolute, is not one of them. It’s not that we’re declining economically; more that other developing nations are rising. This means fewer poor people and greater trade and travel opportunities for our brightest and best individuals and companies. It is very likely that we’ll still be in the top 10 global economies by GDP in 2050.

We need a skilled and flexible workforce, but we do not need a race to the bottom on safety and wages. Our education system needs to be much more meritocratic rather than plutocratic, to ensure social mobility improves and the brightest and best, rather than the wealthiest, have the opportunity to rise to the top. Rather than wrecking the best independent schools, a significantly greater number of fully-funded scholarships should be offered (as the excellent two-part CBBC programme, My Life: Most Famous School in the World, demonstrated). More investment and innovation in state schools should be deployed to raise the standards to independent school levels.

Early learning through creative play is essential for the new economy. Rather than focusing on earlier cramming and testing, we need much more creative education until seven, to unleash the imaginations our future economy needs. The price of rising educational standards should not be stifled, stressed, depressed and suicidal children.

The challenge is not our relative economic position but much more complicated and intractable problems. The rise of developing world middle classes is positive but it puts an ever greater strain on finite resources, especially food, energy and water. This is a case of overconsumption rather than overpopulation. The rise of meat eaters is bad for our planet as livestock is much more resource intensive than crops.

Resource scarcity is compounded by overconsumption. Just as it is harder to supply resources, the demand for them is rising. Disequilibrium in supply and demand creates volatile but inexorably rising prices. Rising prices make previously uneconomic areas viable, putting the polar regions and rainforests at risk, degrading natural habitats and threatening future biodiversity loss. This tragedy of huge commons cannot be overstated. Extracting every last drop of oil is madness. What we need are alternatives.

Pollution has reached pandemic levels. It impacts the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. It threatens our health and wellbeing, but most unforgivably, harms our children. The list of things you cannot eat when you are pregnant grows longer as more toxic chemicals concentrate in the food chain. If you or your children have respiratory, dermatological, gastric or circulatory health issues, look no further than the car outside your home or the energy you buy for a cause.

This leads us to climate change. We are passing, if we have not already passed, the point where mitigation will work. We are left in a position of having to adapt to a radically altered climate where extreme weather events are more likely, food supplies are under threat and global security from mass migration and resource conflicts become inevitable. This is not a good place to be. Had we listened and acted on the clear calls for action in the 70s, 80s and 90s, we would be in an entirely different and sustainable place. Sadly, many of those responsible for our circumstances are no longer around and we are where we are.

Parochial, tribal and shortsighted politicians are not fit for purpose. We need international statesmen who are willing to put global issues at the forefront of their policy and agenda. A race to the bottom in negativity, blame and tribalism will get us nowhere and is an altogether more depressing tragedy of the (House of) commons.

A positive vision of Britain in the world sees us as more equal and meritocratic society than we are today. We should be leading on international diplomacy and engagement rather than warmongers. We have the skills and ingenuity to lead the world on abundant clean energy and resource efficiency. We should be proud advocates of the international laws on human rights that we created. It is right that we defend free trade under the rule of law, but also staunch critics of crony capitalism. Finally, we can and should be a model of open, transparent and functioning representative democracy.

Photo: Alison Scott via

Further reading:

Voting with your voice: why elections should be shaped by policies, not parties

‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’

One size doesn’t fit all: democracy is not always the best form of government

Russell Brand’s revolution: should we vote at all?

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By 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 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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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

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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