Friday, July 25, 2008

Gore’s Challenge

Al Gore gave an incredibly important speech last week, as I’m sure you’ve heard. The challenge is for the US to dramatically reduce our demand, increase our efficiency, and retool our infrastructure in 10 years to produce all of our electricity with no carbon emissions. Echoing JFK’s man-on-the-moon in a decade vision, the challenge sets an ambitious, but achievable goal.

Of course, not everybody thinks so. The responses have been predictable:

1) 1) Gore is a gas-bag (or something to that effect)

2) 2) It’s impossible

3) 3) It will cripple the economy

4) 4) It’s political posturing

5) 5) It’s out of touch with the rest of the world

6) 6) He didn’t tell us exactly how to do it

Of those, I’d say the only one that has any real merit might be #1, and that’s a matter of opinion. The rest reflect only the assumptions we make about what’s possible, about what we want out of life, about why we’re here, and about what are our moral responsibilities to ourselves, other people in our country and around the world, other species, and future generations. The approach is exactly the kind we need. It recognizes the urgency of the problem, and the scale and scope of what’s needed. It moves us past rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

(As an aside, the speech has also brought up criticism that people have been saying “we only have 10 years to deal with this” for over 10 years – I think that’s true, and there’s no doubt we’re locked into real, and painful climate change already. In that respect we’ve already failed. The emissions we are putting out today, will continue to have an effect for the coming 100+ years, changing the climate in ways we cannot predict and will have difficulty adapting to. Now it’s a question of how much and to what degree. So it’s not a “10 years or else” call, we’re already in “or else” now it’s how much “or else” and to set a hard, but achievable stretch goal like this, will hopefully help to wake us up and snap us into action).

The challenge takes a backcasting approach, which is the only way we’ll make the kinds of shifts needed to change our trajectory.

It has the potential to tap into our American drive to be leaders and help others. Something we haven’t shown in quite a while, particularly in the climate negotiations. For a quick eye-opener as to the sorts of reactions our policy is causing, check out this article from the Indian publication Down to Earth. An excerpt:

“In all this, the US has fast-tracked its own climate attack. It had already scored a coup, bringing all major emitters—China and India included—into one group, so blurring, indeed removing, the difference between rich countries legally required to take action and others. It cajoled countries like India by offering amnesty: join my club and I will protect you from taking commitments. Now, with the domestic mood changing, the US has changed tack. Instead of no commitments, it wants China and India to take on voluntary targets—‘aspirational’ in its language. The two are brought in, and the US ends up protecting itself, for the targets for action are set not for the interim (2020), but for 2050. Long enough for it to agree to do nothing, increase its emissions and grow. Climate-murder. But who cares?”

Gore's challenge alone, of course won’t make it happen. But it’s another important piece of a growing puzzle of hopeful developments. More and more sectors are getting started in measuring and planning their reductions, and taking early actions around green building, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment has nearly 560 schools, representing over 4.6 million students developing plans to go climate neutral. The US Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement has up over 840 mayors signed on to meet Kyoto targets. The US Climate Action Partnership between big businesses and big greens is calling for federal action. The We Campaign is getting the word out. 1Sky is focusing on federal action. Green for All is driving the creation of a green economy, and is not going to allow politicians to spin internalizing the cost of carbon as a burden on the poor. As Van Jones said on a conference call yesterday “they don’t speak for us – we speak for ourselves.” And is rallying people from around the world to demand action to get our atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back down to 350ppm. Even oil man T. Boone Pickens has his ambitious Picken’s Plan to bring huge amounts of wind power from the middle of the country to the coasts (in my view, a case of the means justifying the end).

And there are real solutions out there. My business partner has been deep into research on the potential for developing long-range transmission on a DC grid, a big players from business and government here in the US are starting to take these concepts seriously. Lester Brown just released a great piece on the return to thermal solar plants that can generate the MWs needed to make-up a meaningful piece of our energy mix, while addressing some of the solar-storage concerns (i.e. using solar electricity at night). On the demand side, it’s so much about design. It doesn’t need to cost more – we can build better buildings with lower capital costs and dramatically lower operating costs through smart, holistic integrated design. RMI has a host of compelling case studies, laid-out in a very digestible fashion that shows it’s possible. And don’t forget to put the two together – with dramatically lower demand, ramping up renewable to replace fossil fuels starts to look a lot easier, and the concept of no new coal, decommissioning existing coal, and not having to touch the nuclear waste issue, becomes feasible. So the solutions are out there. And we can get there in such a way that we create domestic jobs, revive local communities, and create the kind of sustainable economic development – the growth of value, not stuff – that we need. What’s been missing, but what we’re starting to see more and more is the vision and political will needed to really get it going. We need to get rid of the perverse subsidies for fossil fuels, and start to account for their true costs. We need to put that price on carbon.

Anyway, watch the speech if you haven’t already. And get behind this idea and all the others that will help us realize this goal and our vision for a sustainable, restorative society. Stay going.

These Aspirations

I have always tried to steer well-clear of politics in this blog. The reason is simple – sustainability is inherently non-partisan, and we’ve been living in a highly partisan world, and commenting on politics at all can run the risk of politicizing the real issue – that everyone can stand behind – to do what we can to ensure the sustainability of human civilization, and promote its ongoing evolution and improvement.

But waking up to Obama’s speech in Berlin this morning, I can’t help but share it. He hit so many of the really core issues in ways that made sense in the context of the ‘issues of today’ – touching on the details of what we face – while at the same time pointing upstream to the root causes of those issues. And he articulated why it’s important to come together as one world to face our real enemy, our common enemy, of unsustainability. Of course he didn’t use those words, but that is what it’s about – from global warming to terrorism, from democracy to Zimbabwe, from nukes to Darfur, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine – these are all completed interrelated, and too often we try to deal with their complexity by separating them and pretending they are not – that one is more important than the other. We create a fantasy world and try to apply theories to it. This speech does a good job of moving away from that, of acknowledging the complexity, the problems, the challenges, but focusing on the aspirations we all hold, which is the most likely way for us to come together to overcome them. With these aspirations we can imagine the future we want and work together to create it. This is hard work - not just pick-up-a-shovel-and-put-your-back-into-it hard work - but also the hard work of looking inside, identifying the assumptions we have and the patterns of thought we go through in making choices and how those choices affect others and the rest of the world. This is not easy to do - we have very ingrained ways of thinking and ideas about how the world works, how it necessarily has to work, and it is those thoughts, that spawn the actions, that make the world actually work that way. We have an opportunity with this leader to undertake that work in a meaningful way. So much of it depends on what we Americans think, and as a result how we act, what we buy, who we vote for, etc.

He was speaking in Berlin, so there is of course a theme of walls, and walls coming down. He notes how we can’t keep putting up walls and turning inward as nations and cultures and expecting good things to come. The world is too small and interrelated for that in this century. Shell has been doing scenario planning on the global scale for years. One of the most frightening negative / worst case scenarios that they identify as a possibility is the “Fortress World” – where walls (literal physical walls as well as cultural and policy walls) go up in an overzealous attempt to satisfy our need for protection, not by addressing the root cause, but by applying a band-aid to the cancer. I don’t think Obama is being na├»ve in suggesting we work together and actually address upstream causes – he recognizes the real, immediate dangers of the challenges we face, and the need to stand strong against those – from rouge states to terrorism to global climate disruption - but we can do that while at the same time addressing the real, underlying problems fueling those challenges. We need those walls in our minds to come down as well. Stay going.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Parachuting Cats

Here's a great 5-minute clip of Amory Lovins (Rocky Mt. Institute) talking about the need for a systems thinking and a whole-systems approach to the complex problems we face. RMI continues to do some of the best work in the field, and if you want to see some examples of that work in action in the green building space, check out their case studies, here. The numbers speak for themselves. This stuff is possible. Stay going.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

viva la human spirit

With news of a 7th GHG, yet another white house cover up, and a hot, hot day in New England, this little gem really brightened the day. A friend passed it on w/ the just the title of this post, pretty much sums it up. Someone commented on the guy's carbon footprint to do this - I'd say demonstrating that we're all one and we're all connected in this simple, unexpected way - and as such we all need to eliminate our contribution to climate disruption - is definitely worth it. I bet we'll see this travel the world many more times with a much lower footprint online...enjoy and stay going:

The 7th GHG....

I just saw the news (below) on the Grist weekly update (a great news service if you're looking to stay up on the big events, and stay entertained in the meantime). It is of course not good news, another example of unintended consequences and how taking a "quick fix" approach of replacing one substance produced by society with another can create more problems than it fixes. Both perfluorocarbons and NF3 violate the 2nd sustainability principle. There's no doubt that these finding will lead to the regulation of NF3, and thus represent a risk to LCD manufactures, a hit to their product line, and a bummer to anyone buying an LCD (to really put a damper on things, Co-op America just put out a list of energy saving tips that includes buying an LCD instead of a plasma... of course there are other solutions to these tough TV dilemmas, like skipping it altogether):

If you didn't feel guilty about your TV habits already, here's a new reason: a chemical used in making flat-screen televisions has been found to be a potent greenhouse gas, 17,000 times stronger than carbon dioxide. In a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, atmospheric chemist Michael Prather called nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, "the missing greenhouse gas," and warned that the climate could suffer as the chemical is produced in ever greater amounts to meet soaring demand for LCD displays. If all of the NF3 produced in 2008 were released into the atmosphere, it would have as much warming effect as 67 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the study found -- about the same as the annual CO2 emissions of Austria. NF3 isn't covered by the Kyoto Protocol because it was only being produced in tiny amounts in 1997 when the treaty was negotiated. Ironically, NF3 was developed as an alternative to perfluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that are governed by Kyoto.

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sources: The Guardian, CNet News, The Press Association

Stay going...