Parliament is up for reform, says MP and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith. He tells Alex Blackburne about his mission to bring back both the British electorate’s sense of empowerment and the Conservative party’s historical conservationist instinct.
Whereas some of his colleagues might prefer to toe the party line, Zac Goldsmith certainly isn’t afraid to voice his opinion. In his four years as an MP, he has earned a reputation as being something of an outspoken rebel – perhaps a reflection of his former life as an environmental activist. The man himself insists he isn’t.
Looking around Portcullis House in Westminster, where our interview takes place, Goldsmith points out Conservative colleagues who he says would “naturally agree” with most of what he says. MP for Waveney Peter Aldous, who had walked past us a couple of minutes earlier, is an ardent champion of renewables; meanwhile on the next table is Laura Sandys, the green-minded South Thanet MP who is stepping down in 2015. “I’m not in a tiny minority. It may not be the noisiest majority, but I’m not on my own.”
For a man who not so long ago might have recoiled at the thought of even voting Tory, never mind representing them in parliament, Goldsmith is on a mission to help reclaim the party’s inner green. He says this was lost “sometime towards the end of Margaret Thatcher and during the time of her successors”, and subsequently adopted as an issue for the left wing. Alongside him is a network of like-minded conservatives, as well as the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) that his brother Ben chairs.
At a CEN launch event in February, education secretary Michael Gove revealed himself to be a “shy green”. But Goldsmith is much more vocal about his own environmentalism. As editor of the Ecologist magazine for nine years, he campaigned on issues as varied as nuclear power to marine protected areas. His transition into politics was a natural progression from his role as an activist journalist, he says: “Anyone who cares about anything is political, because politics impacts and is influenced by everything.”
But while politics may have always been his calling, his decision to stand for the Conservatives was not always set in stone. Goldsmith admits he has had – and still has – “a lot of issues” with the party and the conservative movement more generally, most notably the radical ‘neoconservatives’ with whom he says he “simply cannot relate to politically”. What drew him to the Tories, though, was what he calls the “traditional conservative approach” to dealing with problems like the environmental crisis.
“I don’t want to have a situation where we have an enormous, overwhelming, overpowering government”, he adds.
“I like the idea that people should be free to make choices, but I recognise at the same time that the market, left to itself without any kind of interference, is incapable of solving some of the biggest problems we face today. There is a balance there, but on balance, I think the conservative approach is the one that makes most sense.”
Goldsmith laments the fact the environment – a vote-winner at the last general election – has been overlooked by his party in recent years. But he is adamant that green issues are central to conservative thought. He describes society living within its ecological limits as an “obvious, mathematical observation”. And he speaks of a need to look after future generations, which he says is about stability, security and sovereignty. “I feel like in the panic of government, our leadership has lost sight of some of these issues… and I think that is a real shame.”
The Conservative party recently pledged that it would bring an end to onshore wind subsidies if it won the general election in 2015. In disagreement again, Goldsmith pulls no punches: “It just seems very odd to have that policy in relation to wind and then the exact opposite in relation to fracking, which is going to be far more politically contentious. Whatever people think of fracking, there are going to be movements up and down the country from all parties opposing endless fracking installations.
“It just seems a very odd, mixed up and interventionist approach from the government that speaks a very different language. It’s totally political but it’s wrong-headed in my view, and completely juvenile.”
Goldsmith’s environmental instinct is perhaps what has made him an ardent opponent of the possible third runway at Heathrow airport. The expansion would cut right into his Richmond Park and north Kingston constituency, and he has even threatened to stand down as an MP if the plans are approved by the government. That said, he remains confident that the project is “politically undeliverable” and says the answer to Britain’s airport capacity issues lies with better competition between airports and greater investment in surface transport links to each.
His passion for the environment is undeniable – but it is an issue of democracy in which he has invested much of his time in recent months, leading the recall bill campaign. If successful, constituents would have the ability to oust their MPs if they thought they weren’t up to the job, and replace them with someone from the same party. In a recent survey conducted by Blue & Green Tomorrow and Vote for Policies for The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014, 93% of the 6,999 respondents said such a policy would improve our democracy. Just 2% said it would worsen it. “I’m not surprised by that. I know there’s an appetite for this outside of parliament”, Goldsmith says.
Along with 15 parliamentary colleagues from across the political spectrum, he recently wrote to the Telegraph saying it was “time for parties to honour their promise in full” and for recall to be implemented properly. The recall of MPs bill was included in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, but among its proposals is the creation of a committee of MPs that would have final say – which Goldsmith says is not true recall.
“Parliament is up for reform. The problem is all three parties are deeply hostile to this, because if you’re in power, direct democracy of any sort becomes a nuisance. There’s this inherent fear of democracy, and I confront that almost every day. There’s this terror of what could happen and how it could go wrong, but actually, all the arguments that are used [against recall] are arguments against democracy. The campaign will succeed for sure; it’s just a matter of when.”
Properly implemented, recall would empower the British electorate, Goldsmith argues. Anything that can do this is welcome: “If people feel like they’re in control, they’re much less likely just to boycott elections and pull away”. He says that most of the reforms currently on offer serve only to empower political parties.
It is perhaps the notion of helping people feel in more control and better engaged with politics that led to him standing as an MP in the first place. Rebel or not, minority or majority, the UK’s political landscape would surely only benefit from having elected representatives with similar attributes. At a time of scripted politicians, Zac Goldsmith’s free-spoken approach is refreshing to say the least.
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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