So Google's new energy policies might actually be the real thing then

Greenzo would be proud.

Fans of 30 Rock will remember a character named Greenzo, played by David Schwimmer. Employed as an environmental mascot to promote GE products and TV network NBC’s sustainability credentials (in about that order), Greenzo starts to believe his own hype, culminating in a hilarious appearance on The Today Show, where, reminiscent of Peter Finch’s deranged newsreader in Network, he rants incoherently about "big companies and their two-faced, fat cat executives”.

There’s always been something messianic about Google’s environmental proclamations – give CEO Larry Page half a chance and he’ll proselytise with missionary zeal about the company’s clean energy policies – but, thankfully, all comparisons with Tiny Fey’s satire on corporate avarice end there. In the short term at least, Google is happy to let its finances do the talking.

In December, the company snapped up a $200m equity stake in the Spinning Spur Wind Project in the Texas Panhandle, bringing its total investment in renewable energy projects since 2010 to $1bn. The deal was significant for two reasons.

First, Google committed to it before a last-minute deal was brokered in Congress that extended the US Government’s 2.2¢ per kilowatt hour tax credit for energy produced at wind farms. This amounts to an emphatic vote of confidence in the long-term profitability of the US domestic wind market at a time when experts were predicting very little new capacity in 2013.

Second, by becoming the first investor in an EDF Renewable Energy project that is not a financial institution, Google is sending a clear message to corporate America that multinationals can and should be an important new source of capital for the renewable energy sector.

“From our perspective, these are smart investments and more corporations should be making them,” said Kojo Ako-Asare, Google’s head of corporate finance.

Google has also completed two power purchase agreements (PPAs), long-term commitments (in this case, 20 years) to buy renewable energy directly from developers. The schemes "green" electricity grids in Iowa and Oklahoma where the company has data centres and directly benefit clean energy developer NextEra by offering it certainty on the payments for its power.

In the future, Google clearly believes that the smart money will, by necessity, invest in sustainable energy initiatives that benefit wider society as opposed to the special interests of the few.

Google’s investments also serve a third important purpose, that of reconnecting the $250bn global brand with its progressive northern Californian roots in the wake of a very public tax avoidance scandal in the UK and ongoing debate surrounding privacy and anti-trust issues in the US.

In 2007, Google became the world’s first carbon neutral corporation. Six years on, the company founded in the back of a garage with the unofficial slogan of "Don’t be evil" still appears to be 100 per cent committed – culturally, ideologically and financially – to sustainable business practices at every level. Greenzo would be proud.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner is a freelance energy writer for the NRi Digital network

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.