What is being done to drive the transition toward a more sustainable society? Nicky Stubbs recently went to the Urban Integration conference held in Sheffield to find out.
The number of people living in urban environments globally surpassed the number of people living in rural areas in 2006, according to Christopher Kennedy, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. This is particularly alarming, given that the trend is expected to continue well into this century, and that until now, efforts at creating more sustainable urban settings have been pretty lethargic.
In the UK, multiple strategies of mitigating the effects of climate change have been disconnected from each other, often creating inconsistencies and even counteracting productivity. This was found to be the case in a study carried out as part of the COST Action Network on urban integration. Researchers at Newcastle University said that a lack of communication between the government and local councils meant that local efforts to make urban environments sustainable were often undermined.
One of the main issues that local authorities face is that they are increasingly being told that it is their responsibility to ensure systems are put in place to meet carbon reduction and energy efficiency targets, and in an age of austerity, do more with less. Strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change are therefore not clear or concise.
“Much of the problems comes from a lack of clarity in guidance”, says Dr Oliver Heidrich, one of the researchers at Newcastle. “Whereas the previous Labour government set out regulations and guidance more clearly, the Conservatives prefer to devolve powers to local level, which creates inconsistencies.”
In addition to this, councils are seeing their budgets slashed. In some cases, this has lead to strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation and the need to address a changing world being put on a backburner because of dwindling funds.
This fragmented approach is not entirely restricted to the public sector. Academia has attempted to come up with viable solutions to create more sustainable cities, but using multi-disciplinary approaches and often working in isolation – that is, until now.
Richard Dawson, professor of Earth systems engineering and chair of the Centre for Earth Systems Engineering Research (CESER), says that a coalition of academics from various backgrounds was needed.
“We decided that we needed to create a more integrated approach to address the conflicts that can often arise in planning and sustainability issues in the urban environments. This is where the COST Action Network came from”, he said.
A two-day symposium last week, held at Sheffield City Hall and hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, brought together some of Europe’s leading researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including architects, engineers and policy analysts.
Dawson says, “One of the main issues was the multiple approaches that are used to understand climate change. This is not helpful when ultimately everyone is working toward a common goal. It took us nearly two years to break down the language barriers across the different sectors.”
Another issue faced by people working to come up with practical solutions to mitigating the effects of climate change is one of financial constraints. Dawson said that funding for the initiative had been very tight, meaning that the representation of experience at the event – although wealthy – was mainly reserved for European institutions and thus concentrating primarily on European cities.
“There does seem to be a wider desire to engage in sustainability and that is reflected in the political processes, particularly in Europe where the EU sets out directives for member states”, he adds.
The results of these stringent EU directives certainly shine through in the results. Europe is generally seen as one of the leaders in sustainability, but more must be done to ensure that the policies are followed through efficiently.
On a global scale however, the picture is still pretty bleak. Poorer countries which have very little financial power can often find it much more difficult to operate within a sustainable industrial and urban environment. Western consumerism is often driven by these countries, and whilst creating jobs and some form of wealth, the environmental and social conditions are sometimes compromised as a result.
If we are to truly have an effective transition to a more sustainable society, the collaborative approach taken by the 90 academics as part of the COST Action Network initiative needs to be mirrored in political and diplomatic processes.
It is unhelpful, illogical and damaging to both the planet and its custodians to place profitability and economic prosperity before the needs of the natural environment. Cities are increasingly becoming a big part of that picture and unless global efforts from the public and private sectors and civil society working in partnership adopt this approach, the world we pass onto future generations will be very different from – and much more inhospitable than – the one we live in today.
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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