After the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) released its Sustainability Review last week, Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported that the state-owned bank “aims to lead from the front on ethical banking” – although it admitted that it could take up to five years to get there.
This is quite an ambition for any bank, and especially for one whose financing for Canadian tar sands led to the bank being singled out for occupation by Climate Camp activists in 2010; whose financed emissions (i.e. the emissions supported by the bank’s lending) were recently estimated by World Development Movement to be up to 1.6 times the emissions of the whole of the UK; and which was shown by recent research to be the UK’s biggest financier of the coal mining industry.
Whether you take this as a genuine aim or a piece of spin, it’s a massive shift in rhetoric from 2006, when RBS actively advertised itself as “The Oil & Gas Bank”. Maybe we will see this ambition will go the same way as David Cameron’s promise to lead the “greenest government ever”, but let us suspend our disbelief for a moment and choose to take the bank at its word on this.
It must be pointed out that RBS has taken some positive steps in recent months. It has stated that it no longer provides project finance for tar sands projects (although this is not yet policy, and RBS still provides general finance for companies involved in tar sands extraction). It has stated in its new report that it will not provide “direct financing to specific oil exploration projects” in the Arctic or Antarctic (although that’s a lot of caveats to fit into six words). And it has committed not to finance companies with significant mountain-top coal mining operations in the American Appalachia mountains (which is good in that it does cover general corporate finance and not just project finance, but odd in that it implies the company is unconcerned about the destruction of mountains outside of Appalachia).
If imperfect, these policies do represent small steps in the right direction. But to truly lead from the front as an ethical bank in the next five years, RBS will need to run rather than walk. There are plenty of steps which could be taken quickly which would represent real progress. Firstly, RBS could become the first commercial bank to follow the swathe of multinational development banks and governments which published policies in 2013 not to finance coal power stations globally, except in “rare and exceptional” circumstances – or better, go one step further and say no to coal entirely.
Instead, the bank’s policy on coal-fired power stations, while better than nothing, is among the lowest standards around. The bank even operates an Indonesian branch which drives 42% of its lending towards the ‘mining and quarrying’ sector, contributing heavily to the financing of a devastating coal mining boom there, at the expense of the country’s rainforests and indigenous people.
While stepping away from coal would be a good start, more would need to be done. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with its recent fifth assessment report, has made clear that the world needs to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, and has set out the timescales and the costs. The world is waiting for a big commercial bank willing to commit to reducing its exposure to fossil fuels in line with what the science dictates. This is a relatively simple matter of disclosing loans, investments and underwriting for fossil fuels and their associated emissions, setting targets for a rapid reduction of these emissions, and following through with implementation.
To do so would free up capital to invest in the burgeoning renewables and energy efficiency sectors, avoid the considerable risks of stranded assets which comes from financing dirty coal, and surely contribute to turning the bank’s reputation around.
There is a wide open space for a large commercial bank to become a leader on ethics and the environment, and as a majority publicly-owned bank with a mountain to climb in terms of rebuilding its reputation, RBS has plenty of reasons to move into it. But this would need a serious departure from ‘business as usual’. Let’s hope we don’t find ourselves, five years down the line, looking back on this talk of ethical leadership as just another broken promise.
Photo: John Nyberg via freeimages
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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