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Sustainable Living: myths, meanings and realities – review



The Sustainable Lifestyle Research Group (SLRG) presented over nine hours of impressive findings from its three-and-a-half year research project at the beautiful Mary Ward House in London on Tuesday.

Collaboratively undertaken with various universities, including Surrey, Bath, Sussex, Canterbury and Edinburgh, along with the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), it was supported by the Scottish government, the UN Environment Programme (Unep) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The principal aim of the SLRG is to develop new and relevant understanding of the processes that lead to changes in people’s lifestyles, behaviours and practices; and to offer evidence-based advice to policymakers about realistic strategies to encourage more sustainable lifestyles.

The research programme SLRG is co-ordinated from the University of Surrey with Prof Tim Jackson, author of the acclaimed book Prosperity Without Growth, leading the programme and Ian Christie as research co-ordinator.

Jackson kicked off the event in London, alluding to the wide achievements of the SLRG which, despite severe government cutbacks, was able to present exciting new results to the 150 attendees and the broader public. However, Jackson also pointed out that without Defra, the programme’s biggest funder, most of it would not be possible.

He then handed over to Zoe Donkin from Defra, who introduced the SLRG from the government’s perspective. Donkin pointed out that Defra was delighted to build the bridge between civil service and sustainable research, and that she, along with the entire team, hope that findings will have an impact on policy for a better future.

After that, Bas Verplanken from the University of Bath started the first series of presentations under the topic “Exploring Transition“. He presented the findings of his and Debbie Roy’s research around the topic Habits, Attitudes and Behaviours in Transition (HABiT). Based on a field experiment which examined 800 households, he investigated the extent to which some people’s old habits are disrupted when they go through a life course transition. Together with the Peterborough Environment City Trust, Verplanken delivered an interesting presentation which immediately stimulated thinking and triggered good engagement from the floor.

Kate Burningham from the University of Surrey was next. She gave the audience a comprehensive glimpse of the outcomes of her team’s study, Exploring Lifestyle Changes in Transition (ELiCiT). The longitudinal, mixed-method study focused on two key household transitions – having a child and retiring. The team found out that life course transitions do not compromise one ‘moment of change’, but rather are a fluid process of continuing shifts and readjustments.

After a first comfort break with tea and coffee in the Dickens Library, three aspiring young researchers presented the results from their PhDs. Emily Creamer’s research investigated the role of Scottish government-funded, community-led initiatives in encouraging more sustainable lifestyles in remote rural Scotland. Rachel Durrant then presented her work, Civil Society Roles in Transition, before Rebecca White completed the trio with her research findings from Resilience and Sustainable Lifestyle.

Andy Stirling of the University of Sussex followed the three great presentations by offering a new way to think about policy. He said that policies often mitigate drivers of change, instead of responding to it and implementing real change. Thus, only by responding to stresses and adapting to them can real transitions be achieved – from sustaining to transforming. Stirling’s presentation was the last before lunch but likely influenced a number of interesting conversations over the break.

While other events may start to get tiring after lunch, Helga Dittmar, keynote speaker from the University of Sussex, succeeded in shaking up the audience with an interesting and appealing lecture called “The Limits of Materialism: Impacts on wellbeing and the environment”.

Dittmar charismatically showed that society too often provides endorsements for values, goals and associated beliefs that centre on the impact of acquiring money. This, unfortunately, applies for both adults and children. However, shaped by the media and advertisements, all effects of materialistic values lower our personal wellbeing, she said. Our MVO, or Materialistic Value Orientation, also influences our attitude towards the environment. Dittmar finished her talk by pointing out how important it is to develop good values during your early years because they are “sticky” – like habits.

Steve Sorrell, from theUniversity of Sussex, then explained the Rebound Effect (referring to the behavioural or other systemic responses to the introduction of new technologies that increase the efficiency of resource use) and its measurement and responses. It is generally expressed as a ratio of the lost benefit compared to the expected environmental benefit when holding consumption constant. Sorrell presented a number of interesting graphs that clearly explained this phenomenon, and concluded that we must not use it as tool to substitute our consciousness.

Ian Cristie, from the University of Surrey and lead research co-ordinator of the SLRG, followed Sorrell by introducing the research undertaken with so-called boundary-spanners – those who have rich experiences of policy making in terms of sustainable development (SD).

Under the topic “Policy Dialogues in Sustainable Living“, he presented three factors which reshape our policy research landscape: austerity, sustainable development evolution and the overall complexity in the UK. He called for a timely translation of research and also noted that “the big picture framing in polities is not sustainable development; it is solely recovery from the happenings of 2008”. Christie summarised that there is a strong need to focus on opportunities which arise in between research and policy, and that we have to embrace them.

The fourth and final part of the SLRG event was then kicked off by Jonathan Tillson, head of sustainable development at Defra. He presented the department’s work on sustainable lifestyle initiatives and demonstrated the need for a strong linking between research and policy making, strategic investment and generating impact.

Tim Jackson wrapped up the conference, running through the day’s events in a comprehensive manner and linking them to the SLRG’s work. He finally called for the breaking of bad habits, which, however, is only possible in and with a good society.

The very last part of the event was a panel discussion about the foundations for sustainable living. Among the panellists were Helga Dittmar, Lee Davies from Defra, Prof Graham Smith from the University of Westminster and Mike Barry, director of sustainable business (Plan A) at Marks & Spencer.

Facilitated and led by Jackson, interesting discussions ensued. Barry described the future as a “continuous way” – a process or journey on which we need to take everybody. He continued by saying that we need to be exemplars for the aspiration of others, including the poorest who are trying to rise out of poverty. Dittmar concluded that materialism incorporates too much identity and that we need a more mindful consumer culture.

Further reading:

All consuming: the real problem is what we do

What’s in a box? A tale of mass production

Consuming nothing to consume everything

Ethical consumerism’s long journey to the mainstream

The Guide to Sustainable Spending 2013


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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