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Sustainable thinking: how do we make our democracy sustainable?



Three prominent thinktanks explain their ideas on how to make sustainability and environmental issues a greater part of political thought.

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

Thinktanks, research and policy institutes can provide an unparalleled level of expertise and analysis on political issues. Whatever their ideology or affiliations, apparent failings of democracy or the threats posed by unsustainable trends worldwide, ranging from the unethical to the apocalyptic, are principle concerns and irresistible areas of research for many.

But how do they think we can get the better, fairer and more sustainable democracy that we deserve, and put environmental sustainability and responsibility at the heart of it?


Perry Walker is a fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a leading thinktank that works to promote social, economic and environmental justice. He is also the founder of Open Up, a platform that helps people get to grips with complex political issues.

One way that democracy can be made more sustainable, he says, is the use of an idea called Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG). Walker explains that EPG, at a local level, focuses on specific, tangible problems, involving ordinary people affected by these problems and officials close to them in a deliberative process to develop solutions.

He says, “A good example of EPG in practice can be found in the Chicago Police Department. At the local level, in each of Chicago’s 279 police beats, patrol officers and their sergeants meet regularly with residents to identify priorities and ways of tackling them, and to report back on how previous initiatives are going. When local residents were educated about decision-making and empowered to question officials and experts, they could devise strategies which were more equitable and effective. One Chicago neighbourhood, with rich and poor districts separated by railway tracks, agreed a set of priorities that concentrated on the needs of the poor area.”

Walker argues that structures like those in Chicago can act “as a school for democracy”. In order to make sustainability more democratic, he proposes that the House of Lords could be given an additional role similar to that of Hungary’s Ombudsman for Future Generations or Finland’s Parliamentary Committee for the Future. He says that members of the house could be required to act as a voice for the voiceless – meaning both animals and future generations.

Walker says that Rupert Read – the academic and Green party politician – has articulated this idea best: “He suggests two specific powers for the Lords, in relation to legislation that threatens the basic needs and fundamental interests of future people or of the voiceless. The first of these is an ability to veto new legislation that does this, in whole or in part. The second is to be able to force a review, on petitioning, of existing legislation that carries such threat.”

To help bring the somewhat radical sounding idea to life, Walker recommends the post-apocalyptic novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, in which people wearing animal masks speak in parliament for the voiceless. “There’s a thought,” he says.


The influential Fabian Society is one of the world’s oldest thinktanks (arguably, as it was formed in 1884, about seven decades before the term was coined).

It is historically linked to Labour, as its socialist ideas laid many of the foundations for the party’s development. It remains at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the centre-left.

Its environment and citizenship programme is currently asking how politicians of all parties, who just years ago battled it out to be seen as the greenest candidates, have so easily turned their back on ‘the green crap’ and how a new “popular environmentalism” can be fostered. Natan Doron, leader of the programme, suggests that a rethink of what environmentalism means could change everything.

“Our charge against environmentalism is that, like politics, in the UK it’s been chewed over, it’s technocratic, too distant from the lives of ordinary people and conducted by an increasingly small set of elites in Brussels and Whitehall”, he explains.

The society’s findings – gathered through focus groups and polling, some of which is not yet published – indicates that many people define their environmental concerns in surprising ways. Things such as antisocial behaviour and litter were many people’s biggest gripes, while most perceived “environmentalism” to be the domain of Greenpeace and faraway activists.

I think that means a couple of things,” Doron says. “One is that environmental campaigners need to try and change the language and culture of environmentalism. People who aren’t normally interested in the environment need to believe that people from WWF and Greenpeace don’t just care about the polar bears but their local street and their local experience of the environment.

“Connected to that, how can we make environmental policy a little bit more communitarian? How can central government do more to facilitate some of the really good stuff that goes on, for example with friends groups for local parks or community energy schemes, and see it spread out more equally so that environmental policy is very immediate to people?”

Doron admits that this is a tough question to answer, as environmental policy – much of which is geared towards preventing distant, complex things that have not happened yet – is abstract by nature. “But I think increasingly if people have more of a connection to environmental policy and campaigning and ultimately politics at a local level, and feel like they can have more power over their local environment, they will see that connection with the more abstract stuff,” he says.

Pushing the idea that environmentalism begins at home, promoting its tangible, local benefits, could surely make sustainability a very difficult thing for politicians to ignore.

Environmentalism can be about me having beautiful local surroundings and bringing my community together; it’s about lowering my household bills and making my local economy and the global economy more resilient to shocks; it can create job; and it leads to good health outcomes,” Doron says.

If you look at it like that, these are suddenly a set of things that are quite hard to disregard as ‘green crap’, or a policy just for good economic times.”


While many ponder the responsibilities of politicians and citizens in the pursuit of sustainability, Sally Uren, chief executive of Forum for the Future, suggests a decisive role could be played by a third participant – business.

Forum for the Future collaborates with businesses small and large, primarily in the food and energy systems, empowering industries to work towards a sustainable and ethical future. Like most, Uren believes that it is us – the citizens of the world – that can drive democracy forward.

“I think that there is a lever that has not been adequately pressed, which could really wake politicians up to sustainability, and that is civil society,” she says. “Politicians are in it for votes, to get them elected. One of the reasons why sustainability really hasn’t mainstreamed properly in political dialogue is the general view that there are no votes in it. While civil society is sleepy and apathetic on this agenda, politicians will remain the same.”

However, Uren proposes that businesses could play the same role as local initiatives or climate disasters – as instigators of citizen engagement – if they began treating people as more than consumers. “Businesses run brands; brands can change behaviour by acting with citizens in really complicated ways,” she says.

As an example, Uren points to the work of Unilever, a company leading by example in sustainability in the developing world. Through its soap brand Lifebuoy, Unilever has led a massive behaviour change campaign trying to educate one billion people on the benefits of handwashing.

“Businesses working with government’s can really solve some of these issues”, she says. “I don’t think government has woken up to the blurred boundaries between themselves, business and civil society. Historically government makes rules, creates enabling conditions, business tries to make money, and we consumers – not citizens – go with the flow. But that has been changed, fuelled by transparency and digital platforms, the roles and responsibilities of those three sets of actors have changed.”

What is needed now, Uren argues, is an improved understanding on the relationship between the three actors and a consensus on what it should achieve: “We need to see better alignment of agendas as neither one alone can make the changes we need to see.”

Photo: Debbie Schiel via

Further reading:

Power to the people: how do we make our democracy sustainable?

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

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

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

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014


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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