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The story of unburnable carbon



Analysis from one group of financial experts could dramatically change the energy landscape for the better – but our communication needs to improve before it can.

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

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr stood on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial and told 250,000 people about his dream of a more equal society. His speech is considered one of the most powerful in human history and his visions of black children joining hands with white children in unity inspired an entire generation.

A key factor in its influence was that people knew first-hand about the alternative. King was telling them his dream; but they already knew the nightmare – the segregation, the oppression. When it comes to climate change – the 21st century’s defining challenge – this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is something Anthony Hobley knows all too well. Chief executive of the London-based thinktank the Carbon Tracker Initiative since February, he and his colleagues work to translate the complex climate science into something tangible and understandable for the financial world. Their ground-breaking 2011 report, Unburnable Carbon, estimated that as much as 80% of known fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned if we want to tackle climate change. Suddenly, they had investors’ attention.

If you just tell people there is a massive, complex problem, the psychology is to switch off to protect yourself from the stress”, Hobley says, sitting in a London café at the foot of the Shard.

We’ve done the climate nightmare and that doesn’t work. We’ve done the green dream and that doesn’t work. We need some great leaders, great communicators, who find a powerful way to combine the two in language that people understand.”

Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author, communicated Carbon Tracker’s concept to the masses in his 2012 Rolling Stone article – Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math – that really gave rise to the divestment movement. Since then, universities, pension funds and other major investors have pledged to take their money out of oil, gas and coal – most of them with Carbon Tracker’s analysis as their motivation.

For Hobley, while this is clearly useful in furthering the conversation, divestment is not the sole answer. “You cannot practically divest from energy overnight. We’re more about a mainstream discussion, which is about managing the climate risk and allowing for a managed deflation of the carbon bubble.”

Hobley himself spent 25 years as an environmental lawyer. The skills he had picked up in this time were described as the “perfect amplifier” to Carbon Tracker’s existing talent pool when he was unveiled as chief executive last December. He has come a long way and jumped many hurdles in his career.

He couldn’t read or write until he was nine. But he is proudly dyslexic. Like the Bransons, Da Vincis and Einsteins of this world before him, Hobley sees the condition as a gift. His dyslexia thrust him down a very academic route, including postgraduate chemistry research at Cambridge. Despite holding a first-class honours degree he realised his future was in another “more meaningful” field.

He became interested in law and started going to some of the early lectures on modelling climate change. Putting the two together – a “powerful combination”, he says – he embarked on a new career in environmental law.

Much of his work for the next few years focused on issues like mergers and acquisitions liability, waste and contaminated land, but his passion was always with climate change. He spent the following two decades working at a range of leading law firms – Nabarro, CMS Cameron McKenna and Baker & McKenzie – and with his mentor James Cameron at Climate Change Capital.

In 2007, he moved to Norton Rose Fulbright – based in London and then Sydney – with a mandate to build a global climate change practice, and in 2009 worked with the Lithuanian government at the now infamous Copenhagen climate change negotiations, when world leaders tried, and failed, to agree on a global deal on cutting back greenhouse gas emissions. Hobley says, “Like many people, I went into extreme ‘counselling’ and soul searching after Copenhagen. We all went in with such optimism and such hope – and that was obviously so cruelly dashed against the rocks that it took a bit of time to recover.”

He started at Carbon Tracker in February. Of his decision to move away from law, he says, “I realised that this was one of those critical times. If you really understand what’s at stake with climate change and the fact that we have fortuitously been given a second bite of the cherry with [the Paris climate negotiations, the follow-up to Copenhagen] in 2015, you kind of felt you want to be somewhere to make a difference.”

He maintains that the climate change movement’s “biggest failure” is its communication of the science. It hasn’t made it understandable in everyday language or relevant now for most people, he argues.

Most people’s brains are wired to deal with life as it is now over the next 12 months or at most two years, whereas I think many of us in the climate movement have a longer horizon, we’re weird to most people. In evolutionary terms, we’re the human canaries I guess.

What I saw that was so exciting about Carbon Tracker is they had found a way to make this relevant to their community – the financial community – in their language. They had used basic financial analysis in a way that I hadn’t really seen done in the climate movement before.”

The way investors react to Carbon Tracker’s analysis will likely shape how the threat that is climate change plays out. Many are divesting; many others are actively engaging with fossil fuel firms to get them to consider these climate risks – but most, so far, are not.

As for Paris next year and what the world’s response to climate change will look like after that, Hobley says there are only three scenarios. The first is the goldilocks scenario, whereby strong policy allows for an orderly low-carbon transition at relatively low-cost. There would be few ‘stranded assets’ – stocks that are essentially worthless – in this scenario, like Carbon Tracker is currently forecasting, because investors would see the risks in advance and act upon them.

The second outcome is the nightmare – a world 3-6C warmer, and rising, which Hobley says is “catastrophic, existential, game over”. He adds, “If we allow that to happen, this will be the most hated generation that ever lived.”

The third scenario – which is most likely in Hobley’s eyes – sees the world leaving climate action until the last possible moment and then throwing everything at it as we did in the financial crisis. Whether this will be spawned by some severe weather event, disruptive technological change or a financial shock, he is unsure, but this scenario will be massively more expensive than the first. This is where stranded assets and systemic risk raise their ugly heads.

Carbon Tracker’s analysis helps connect these three scenarios with the people with the most power to do something about it – the investors. But it cannot stop there. We need similar translations into industries like retail, tourism, advertising, education, engineering and medicine. We need films about climate change – and not just disaster movies – and we need people to write fiction and songs about it.

Martin Luther King’s place in history is assured because he made the issue of civil rights relevant to everyone. And crucial to our future is making climate change relevant to everyone. Creating a new dream is in everyone’s best interest.

Photo: bugdog via Free Images

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Further reading:

Shell ‘underestimating’ climate change risks to investors

New ‘fossil free’ investment index boosts divestment movement

Investing in fossil fuels is ‘a bet on the future’

Carbon Tracker’s latest analysis is a warning to fossil fuel investors everywhere

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 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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