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Upping the ante at COP21



With 12 weeks until the close of the COP21 climate summit, we already know that nations’ commitments must become much more ambitious in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees – the threshold for preventing the “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” impacts of climate change.  Nick Hay, director of Edelman’s UK Cleantech Practice, writes for Blue & Green.

Reportedly, the combined pre-submitted climate pledges (or INDCs in UN jargon), could only limit us to 2.5C of warming, only slightly below the 3C deemed likely without such pledges.

To an outsider, the UN process may seem Kafkaesque.  UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon knew back in June “…that these INDCs (would) not be sufficient to place us on a less-than-2-degree pathway.” And whatever agreement is made, it won’t enter into force until 2020; then taking a decade for us to know how countries have responded when the pledges close in 2030.

So is the system flawed?  To quote the UN’s top climate official Christiana Figueres, COP21 is not a “one shot deal”.  A key deliverable for Paris is to create a clear line of sight of the task ahead and a process for reviewing and updating the pledges beyond 2020.  In many ways, the INDC process is a communication device for levelling the playing field before a full reconfiguration of the economy in-line with 2 degrees.

The Paris negotiations represent a classic ‘prisoner’s dilemma’.  To successfully manage climate change, each leader must pledge their commitments to carbon abatement.  The diverse range of clean technologies can be thought of as cheap and expensive poker chips, which can assure a country’s COP21 commitments.

The unknown quantity at the table is Mother Nature – the entity demanding an appropriate investment of ‘chips’ to keep global warming within a safe threshold.  If the group fails to put in a sufficient number of chips to keep within the 2 degree threshold – the resulting environmental disaster will cost each player a much larger stack of chips.  In reality, the cost of staying below a 2 degree temperature rise (according to Stern et al) is between 1% – 2% of global GDP.  Whilst the costs of adapting to a 2 degrees world are at least 15-20% GDP lost by the end of this century.

Science has lurked in the background of the climate debate for the last decade, poring over data sets behind closed doors to gauge the risk climate change represents to our socioecological system.  In proposing the 2 degrees trajectory, scientists have asked Government, business and the public to fundamentally change their habits – but without providing the necessary tools for us to understand why it has to happen.

However, now we are seeing increasing democratisation of climate science, bringing new clarity to the debate.  The Global Calculator, for example, is a powerful new tool (built by a team of scientists led by Climate-KIC and DECC) for modelling the impact of lifestyle, land use, fuels and technology advances on a 2 degrees trajectory.  The datasets in the Calculator can show where we stand today and where we need to get to, by geography.  They allow us to set science-based goals computed on a per capita basis – which can be ratcheted up – to share the carbon debt equitably across nations.

The increasing interplay between science and business gives a clearer view of how the economic system can evolve.  Increasingly science, not politics, is setting the pace and the terms of engagement. Providing that certainty to business is key, since public sector financing alone is totally inadequate for the job ahead.

Will this increased engagement on science have an impact at Paris?  Social science tells us that it will.  Studies show that human beings – among them global leaders are sensitive to social feedback. A clear line of sight of how a 2 degrees trajectory can be achieved, within our existing political framework, is vital for encouraging generosity from countries in achieving an effective deal at COP21.


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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