23 October 2009

Australia's Food Waste Bill Tops A$5 Billion

Reposting in full from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 16 October 2009

'Australians are estimated to waste more than A$5 billion worth of food and drink every year - and that figure is predicted to rise.

ABC reports that from uneaten takeaway to fresh vegetables that never quite make it to a meal, the waste bill for Australia's largest city is hitting new highs.

Sydney wastes about A$1 billion worth of food per year, and about 60 per cent, or more than A$600 million worth, is fresh food, according to Professor Phillip O'Neill from the University of Western Sydney.

"We throw out about A$130 million of uneaten takeaways," he said. "The things that we actually cook, that's after the fresh food is brought into the house, the value of what we throw out in leftovers is about A$180 million.

"The reality is we are throwing out more than we are prepared to pay the farmers in the Sydney basin who grow it."

Professor O'Neill says he believes the waste is a product of good intentions to buy fresh food and cook it at home.

"I think by the end of the week our good intentions have been eroded by our busy lives, about the ease of a takeaway or an eat-out," he said.

The Australia Institute conducted a similar study analysing Australia's wasteful ways. Dr Richard Dennis says the latest research is consistent with that of 2005.

"We found across Australia that people wasted around A$5 billion a year in food," Dr Dennis said.

"All states exhibited a high degree of waste, relatively consistent, but we certainly found that the ACT was the biggest waster in the country per capita.

"That's because average incomes in the ACT are really quite high, so perhaps not surprisingly the more we earn, the more we waste."

Dr Dennis says he is not optimistic there have been behavioural changes in recent times that may cause people to be less wasteful.

"We hear a lot more about environmental sustainability these days. Governments talk about reduce, reuse and recycle," he said.

"There's a lot of reasons to expect that the numbers would have changed, but I guess I'm not terribly optimistic that they will have."

Professor Phillip O'Neill presented at the Feeding Sydney Conference on 24 September:

Sydney's food value chain: A discussion paper
A presentation to the Hawkesbury Foundation Conference

This one day interactive Conference focused on the issues associated with feeding a growing world population at a time when available agricultural land and water supplies are declining and there is increasing pressure regarding sustainability of farming systems.'

Executive Order Commits US Federal Agencies to Sustainability

Reposting in full from Warmer Bulletin e-news, 16 October 2009

Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance

'Federal agencies must set 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals within 90 days and devise a string of plans to soften their environmental impacts, President Barack Obama has ordered.

Greenbiz.com reports that the Executive Order is intended to jumpstart a transition to a clean energy economy as climate change legislation moves through Congress, saving taxpayers a substantial amount of money in the process. The impact of the order promises to be huge, considering the Federal government's sheer size: It occupies nearly 500,000 buildings and operates more than 600,000 vehicles.

Another key component of the Executive Order - a green procurement policy to cover 95 per cent of new contracts and acquisitions - will also carry a lot of weight due to the government's mammoth buying power, which exceeds more than a half trillion dollars spent on goods and services annually.

"As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the Federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally-responsible products and technologies," President Obama said in a statement.

"This Executive Order builds on the momentum of the Recovery Act to help create a clean energy economy and demonstrates the Federal government's commitment, over and above what is already being done, to reducing emissions and saving money."

Other environmental targets in the order include a 30 per cent reduction in fleet gasoline use and 26 per cent boost in water efficiency, both by 2020, and a 50 per cent waste recycling and diversion rate by 2015. The 2030 net-zero-energy building requirement must also be implemented under the order.

In a move that echoes Walmart's Sustainability Index initiative, which will seek environmental impact data from the retailer's 100,000 suppliers, the Executive Order charges the General Services Administration with exploring the feasibility of tracking vendor greenhouse gas emissions.

Recommendations could include requiring vendors to register with a voluntary greenhouse gas emissions registry and disclose their efforts to reduce emissions. Preference or other incentives could be given for "products manufactured using processes that minimize greenhouse gas emissions."Each agency must appoint a senior sustainability officer from among senior management to be accountable for complying with the order. The Chair of the Council on Environment will report agency goals and results directly to the President.'

Future Generations Ombudsman & Rights for Nature

Excerpt from Identity Campaigning, 30 September 2009

'Hungary [has established] an Ombudsman for Future Generations, the first office of its kind. The independent but state-funded department, headed by a Parliamentary Commissioner, is made up of a team of scientists and lawyers responsible for holding to account the decisions and strategies of the Hungarian government, representing the voice of future generations in any decision. This is an extraordinarily creative legal step, and one that in one fell swoop has the potential to shift the mindset of a country, by making an explicit statement that the future matters....

Almost a year ago to the day, Ecuador became the first country to write rights for nature into the national constitution. This intervention works in a fairly similar way to the Hungarian concept, by allowing representation for an otherwise unrepresentable entity. Any Ecuadorian citizen now has the right to bring a lawsuit on behalf of nature. This is signficant for its practical implications of course; but again, what a statement, what a shift in mindset!...'

Climate Change: What’s Suicide Got to Do With It?

More nitwittery from the American right...

Reposting in full from Worldwatch Institute blog 'Dateline: Copenhagen, 22 October 2009

'Predictably, the growing debate about the connections of population growth to climate change is growing ugly. The ever-provocative US radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has publicly suggested that New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin take his own life to help out the environment.

Revkin had floated the idea of carbon credits for one-child families as “purely a thought experiment, not a proposal.” (Elena Marszalek of Worldwatch helped spread the idea by immediately blogging about it, an assist Revkin duly credited.) It could hardly be anything but a thought experiment, given that no country on earth has come close to instituting carbon credits of any kind for families or individuals. And for reasons that Limbaugh’s tasteless suggestion helps clarify, no government negotiator headed for the Copenhagen climate conference will touch population with a pole the length of a wind turbine rotor blade. The whole idea that human numbers have anything to do with the world’s climate change dilemma remains too prone to Limbaugh’s level of discourse for most of the over-stressed climate-change negotiating community even to contemplate.

Which is exactly why Revkin performed a public service in putting out the idea of carbon credits for small families - non-starter though it is. The public interest in the population connection to climate change is growing fast, and for understandable reasons. Obviously human beings, and no natural or non-human phenomenon, are responsible for the dramatic rise in the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began. And just as obviously, the fact human population has grown well into the billions since then has a lot to do with the magnitude of the subsequent buildup of these gases. This is worth discussing, and was touched upon in State of the World 2009, but the conversation still has a long way to go before most climate negotiators and policymakers take it seriously. If Revkin can stand a call for his suicide, the rest of us can welcome more people thinking about the obviousness of the human and population connections to environmental degradation.

Revkin’s non-proposal is likely to be irrelevant anyway, once the world grapples seriously with climate change. The cost of living will probably rise as we phase out carbon-based energy, and even more so if we don’t—and we’ll suffer the climatic consequences as well. Modern parents respond to tough times by seeking to postpone childbearing. They’ll get plenty of economic incentives from life to want just one or maybe two children. What they’ll need—as Revkin recognizes - is good family planning services to make sure pregnancy happens only when a child is wanted.

If Limbaugh weren’t so hungry for attention of any kind, he’d concede that none of this has anything to do with suicide.'

Protecting Ourselves from a 4 Degree World

Excerpt from The Guardian, 22 October 2009

'The British government today raised the political stakes on climate change when it published a new map of the world that details the likely effects of a failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The map shows the impact of an average 4C rise in global temperature, which John Beddington, the government's chief scientist, said would be "disastrous". A study by the Met Office last month said that such a 4C rise could come as soon as 2060 without urgent and serious action to reduce emissions.

The map was launched to coincide with the London Science Museum's new Prove it climate change exhibition by David Miliband, foreign secretary and his brother Ed Miliband, energy and climate change secretary. It comes in advance of key political talks on climate change in December in Copenhagen, where British officials will push for a new global deal to curb emissions....

The map's release marks a significant shift in political discourse on climate change, with many politicians until recently unwilling to discuss the possibility of a failure to hit the 2C target.
David Miliband warned today that the Copenhagen talks were "the most complicated international negotiations ever attempted". He predicted that unless climate change was slowed there would be "high pressure" on water and food shortages...
Ed Miliband said: "Britain's scientists have helped to illustrate the catastrophic effects that will result if the world fails to limit the global temperature rise to 2C. With less than 50 days left before agreement must be reached, the UK is going all out the persuade the world of its need to raise its ambitions so we get a deal that protects us from a 4C world."

The map, produced by the Met Office Hadley Centre, is based on temperatures between 2060 and 2100 if current rates of climate change are not slowed. It shows that the rise will not evenly be spread across the globe, with temperature rises much larger than 4C in high latitudes such as the Arctic. Because the sea warms more slowly, average land temperature will increase by 5.5C, which scientists said would shrink agricultural yields for all major cereal crops on all major regions of production.

A 4C world would also have a major impact on water availability, with supplies limited to an extra billion people by 2080. It could also be very bad news for the Amazon, with some computer models predicting severe drying and subsequent die-back. One of the biggest, more subtle, effects could be on the way the world's oceans and ecosystems absorb carbon. About half of our carbon emissions are currently soaked up in this way, which helps put the brake on global warming. In a 4C world, scientists say the amount of emissions re-absorbed in this way could shrink to just 30%.'

Carbon Reductionism & Canine Conundrums

Excerpt from Planet Ark, 23 October 2009

'They're faithful, friendly and furry - but under their harmless, fluffy exteriors, dogs and cats, the world's most popular house pets, use up more energy resources in a year than driving a car, a new book says.

In their book "Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living," New Zealand-based architects Robert and Brenda Vale say keeping a medium-sized dog has the same ecological impact as driving 10,000 km (6,213 miles) a year in a 4.6 liter Land Cruiser...

Calculating that the modern Fido chows through about 164 kg of meat and 95 kg of cereals a year, the Vales estimated the ecological footprint of cats and dogs, based on the amount of land needed to grow common brands of pet food...constructing and driving the jeep for a year requires 0.41 hectares of land, while growing and manufacturing a dog's food takes about 0.84 ha - or 1.1 ha in the case of a large dog such as a German shepherd. Meat-eating swells the eco-footprint of canines, and felines are not that much better, the Vales found...'


Every single activity has an impact - it is important to know what those impacts are to enable us to make good decisions, but the carbon cost-benefit analysis that only counts carbon is as myopic as a conventional cost-benefit analysis that only counts dollars.

A world without dogs? Those critters that lower blood pressure, provide security, love and companionship and serve human beings in a myriad of ways from customs, to police work to people with a disability?

Is this where we are heading? A world of constant trade offs and eco-martyrdom?

Do dogs have a right to exist like wild species? If we are going to do this by ranking how 'bad' a carbon impact is, how about we cull elephants instead? After all, what use are they? [devil's advocate, all species have intrinsic worth and the right to exist].

And what - as a dog lover, who has always had a dog in my life and knows the joy they bring - of my own eco-hypocrisy? What about people who love cars and not dogs?

Carbon reductionism is not the most sensible approach, but if people insist on it, why can't we get rid of 'boomerang trade' [exporting and importing like goods] first before doing away with dogs?

  • '5,000 tonnes of toilet paper from the UK to Germany, but then the UK imports over 4,000 tonnes back again from Germany

  • 22,000 tonnes of potatoes imported from Egypt to UK and then the UK exports 27,000 tonnes back to Egypt

  • 4,400 tonnes of ice cream gets exported from the UK to Italy, and 4,200 tonnes is then imported back

  • 116 tonnes of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ comes into the UK, rumbling past 106 tonnes headed in the opposite direction

  • Ships, lorries and planes wastefully carrying often identical goods from city to city across the globe and back again...'
The Vales point out:

"Once you see where (cats and dogs) fit in your overall balance of things - you might decide to have the cat but not also to have the two cars and the three bathrooms and be a meat eater yourself.'

Exactly - so how is the overall impact reduced? How many people will use their 'carbon savings' ['I don't eat meat'/'I don't fly'/'I'm not having kids'] to 'spend' on other consumption ['...then I can fly'/'then I will eat that steak'/'then I will have two dogs']?

I have seen some mind boggling comments on this issue in recent times - from a post in response to an online article in which a woman said she would not be giving up eating red meat so people in the third world could 'continue to breed', to the idiocy articulated by right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh today, in which he suggested a journalist who is expressing concerns about population growth and climate change commit suicide as his contribution!

Carbon reductionism and blame games are not the best approach.

We need to think much more robustly, beyond carbon, and how we can envision quality of life within ecological limits - but while we are arguing about this and figuring it out, could we please start with designing out wastefulness and existing nonsensical activity like boomerang trade and the hideous waste of food?

Maggie: "...but I don't even eat potatoes..."

22 October 2009

The Wealth of Africa - Securing Human Well Being in an Ecologically Constrained World

image from Vita [Ireland]

“Development that ignores the limits of our natural resources ultimately ends up imposing disproportionate costs on the most vulnerable.”

Mathis Wackernagel, Ph.D., President Global Footprint Network

Global Footprint Network [GFN] has just released the Africa Factbook 2009, which charts Africa’s Footprint & human development trends:

www.footprintnetwork.org/images/uploads/AfricaFactbook_2009.pdf [15 MB]

"Many low-income countries have an abundance of natural resources, yet their populations often suffer first and most tragically when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds what nature can renewably provide...[we need to] focus on how to advance human development that works with, rather than against, the Earths ecological budget constraints."

GFN are also hosting a free Webinar, 'The Wealth of Africa: Securing Human Well-being in an Ecologically Constrained World', Tuesday Nov. 10th at 14:15 GMT. The Webinar, moderated by Global Footprint Network President, Dr. Wackernagel, will feature renowned panelists including representatives of the African Development Bank, UNIDO, OECD and Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. Participation is free.

There will also be an event in Siena in June 2010 focusing on bringing these two storylines together: quality of life for all [ending extreme poverty, the humanitarian question] within the means of nature [the ecological limits question], The Opportunity of Limits.

Time Isn't What It Used to Be - Book Review

Excerpt from review of Eva Hoffman's book 'Time', New Scientist, October 2009

'Time is not what it used to be. Once a flowing river whose current we passively monitored, time is now more properly understood as something constructed by the brain and personalised by culture. We have relationships with time; we fight it and manipulate it.

Into this arena steps Eva Hoffman with her poetically scientific and austerely titled Time. Hoffman is on an exploration to become intimate with time, motivated by her sense that our interaction with time has changed.

Our societies have become obsessed with time and timekeeping, both in the workplace and at home. Jet travel manipulates our experience of day-night cycles and seasons, while biomedical science races to increase our lifespan yet further. At the other end of the spectrum, new technologies adapt our minds to the ever-briefer scales of micro and nano.

Hoffman covers a lot of ground, from physics (why time flows in only one direction) to biology (the circadian rhythm and sleep) to neuroscience (how temporality is constructed by the brain). She addresses questions of time and consciousness, including the uniquely human ability to envision large vistas of past or future.

Perceived time is illuminated by disease states such as Alzheimer's disease or Korsakoff's syndrome, in which one's time narrative becomes disorganised, and by fantasies and dreams, in which the unconscious brain does not necessarily commit to a temporal narrative at all.

Hoffman also investigates individual differences in how people treat time (those who leave parties early versus those who have to be shooed out at the end) as well as cultural differences (communities in which haste amounts to a breach of ethics, for instance).

A recurring theme is that the human capacity to manipulate our environment ushers in new complexities to the basic biology of time. For example, while other animals age and die on a strict schedule, humans do everything in their power to control that timing. And the book is full of interesting thoughts: consider the different temporal experience of wild blueberry bushes, which live 13,000 years, and mayflies, which fulfil their earthly purpose in a lifespan of hours...

One gap in the book involves the perception of very short time scales - of less than a second - which neuroscientists refer to as time sensation: did he catch my glance at his name tag? Which event happened first, my footfall or the snapping twig? Sub-second time sensation is a fertile area in modern brain research, one that is unlocking fundamental mysteries about perception...

The book argues convincingly that our relationship with time is changing drastically, portending real consequences for our quality of life. These considerations lead Hoffman to state that our changing relationship with time amounts to a "paradigm shift comparable to the Copernican or Einsteinian revolutions"...

The author describes her childhood in Eastern Europe as slow-tempo, and one suspects that only an immigrant's eyes could so clearly detect the "American nervousness" with time: the way Americans squeeze time and fret about it in their "perpetually renewing newness". But she's not necessarily opposed to the American tempo. She acknowledges that the strict, efficient management of time has its merits - for example, knowing how much one's time is worth and asserting one's "temporal rights".'

Midway: Message from the Gyre

Art, sweet art...

Chris Jordan, October 2009

'These photographs of albatross chicks were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent. '

21 October 2009

Attack of the 90 Foot Seagull

Comic relief from sustainability is also an essential part of sustainability!

Never doubt that the Nine Network [Australia]'s news broadcasts are not live!

From Ninemsn, 22 October 2009

'A giant seagull did its best to ruffle the feathers of Channel Nine newsreader Peter Hitchener last night, but the veteran did not even bat an eyelid.

The unscheduled intrusion happened a few minutes into the 6pm news in Melbourne as Hitchener was reading a story about an underworld murder committed in 1982.

The image of an oversized seagull suddenly appeared behind Hitchener's head, caused by the bird walking in front of the camera Nine has positioned to capture the cityscape.

But Hitchener did not even flinch as the seagull rolled up, paused next to his head, and exited quickly left of screen.

"I was reading away, and it was a serious story, and I suddenly thought, 'Oh my gosh that seagull's back again', because we had bit of a problem last night,'' he told Melbourne radio after the bulletin.

"About 50 seconds to six o'clock this seagull arrived and started pecking at the camera and it had the beadiest huge eyes you've ever seen in your life.''

Hitchener said the cameramen in the studio had to duck for cover to hide their laughter.'

Art, Sweet Art

lovely quote by Bill McKibben...

"What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?”

- Bill McKibben, American environmentalist and author

Ecological Literacy & The New Copernican Shift

Excerpt from the beautiful blog, The Butterfly Generation* [9 billion people. Expanding economies. A finite planet], 18 October 2009

*The Butterfly Generation is a blog exploring the cultural change required for sustainability. Moving from an era of "bigger" to an era of "better" might be the central challenge of our time. What will a culture commensurate with that challenge look like?

'You can’t talk about cultural change without mentioning Copernicus – the guy who, with his hypothesis of a sun-centered solar system, nearly single-handedly launched the scientific revolution, pulled the rug out from under a stagnant church, and pushed forward the Renaissance’s period of rapid cultural change...

Copernicus’s work was a threat to then-contemporary church doctrine because it dethroned humans as centers of the world, placing us instead as less-significant nodes in a wider cosmic network.

The sustainability challenge...asks us to do nearly the same thing: overhaul the notion that our societies and economies exist outside of ecological systems, and re-establish ourselves as citizens within those systems. Driving the former...is the cultural belief that capitalism can wriggle its way around environmental limits via technology. There’s enormous need for that wriggling– but it has to be undergirded by a culture that understands itself as a privileged resident within a larger, nongrowing, global ecological system.

The physicist/writer/systems theorist, Frijtof Capra, calls that shift “ecological literacy.” I’ve been thinking of it lately as the “New Copernican Shift”– the cultural dethroning of our economy as an autonomous system capable of anything to a system housed within a larger ecological system...

Capra argues that sustainabilty has begun to require those of us used to thinking purely about social systems to begin thinking about physical systems, too. That’s the New Coperican Shift: like the Earth in the solar system, social systems (like our economy) always were embedded in physical systems – it’s just time we realized it.'

The Great Transition

From the new economics foundation, October 2009

'A new report
, The Great Transition, published today by nef, marks the launch of a 40 year long initiative to transform the UK economy so that it is climate friendly while also solving a broad swathe of closely connected social problems related to inequality.

At the heart of The Great Transition is the assumption that an advanced, industrialised nation like the UK cannot achieve those goals if its resource-hungry economy continues to grow in conventional GDP terms.

And, as The Great Transition shows that while the UK's conventional GDP may fall by a third, making better use of what we have will mean real increases in real social and environmental value. “A better
reality is possible if we choose to make it happen.

Politicians will no longer be able to say that they had no alternative” says nef’s policy director, Andrew Simms. Or, as the Guardian’s Economics Editor, Larry Elliott, writes in today’s paper “If we are not ready for nef's Great Transition, what sort of future have we got?”

Find out more on the nef website and the BBC.'

Victorian Goverment Auctions Brown Coal on e-bay [spoof]

a brilliant piece of culture jamming/media work! Australian sarcasm and laconic wit at its best...

Reposted in full from Crikey!, 20 October 2009

'According to recent reports, the Brumby government plans to export brown coal to India. For those who don’t know, brown coal is one of the most emissions-intensive ways to generate electricity  — even more polluting than oil, gas or black coal.

The Brumby government is desperate to capitalise on Victoria’s abundant coal reserves before a global emissions treaty or carbon price takes effect. After that happens, burning brown coal will be socially unacceptable and considerably more expensive.

But isn’t there a simpler way to offload the stuff? After all, how do most people get rid of a dodgy product in a hurry? They auction it on eBay, of course.

So that's what I've done. Victoria’s 13 billion tonnes of unallocated brown coal are now listed as an eBay item, under the seller name "BrumbyGovt". Bids are open for the next seven days.

The starting price is $1,000,000, but the Brumby government hopes to make billions from the deal.

Of course, brown coal could be a hard sell for the government. A power station using Victorian brown coal is 37% more emissions-intensive than one using black coal, according to a 2002 paper from the University of Technology, Sydney. Wet and highly flammable, brown coal has for years been stigmatised as an inferior energy source. The Brumby government hopes to dry the coal so it’s less polluting, but buyers will still have concerns.

That’s why, until bidding ends on October 21, "BrumbyGovt" will answer any questions about brown coal and its exportation. Responses will draw on government media releases about climate change and energy supply. (Of all the eBay sellers currently peddling their wares, the Brumby government has perhaps the most experience of spruiking a defective product. It’s been spinning untruths about brown coal for years.)

Once bidding finishes, the best queries and responses will be published here on Crikey. So if you’ve got a question about brown coal to ask the Brumby government, submit it on the eBay site or email it to buybrowncoal@gmail.com.

Below are some sample questions and responses to get you thinking.

Isn’t burning brown coal a really dirty way to generate electricity? Yes and no. Yes if you compare it to wind, solar, solar thermal, tidal, hydro, gas, oil, black coal and just about everything else. No if you compare it to itself. Naturally, we prefer the latter comparison.

For example, in a 2008 media release we said our new drying technology can reduce emissions by 30% "compared to current best practice for brown coal power generation in the Latrobe Valley". Technically that’s about the same level of emissions as a black coal power station. But hey, we’re "glass half full" kind of guys.

"Won’t people protest if we start burning brown coal? Probably. But at the Brumby government, we’ve come up with a unique solution to the problem of free speech. We’re proposing new penalties for protesters who attempt to shut down coal-fired power stations. Two years’ jail and a $28,000 fine should convince greenies not to kick up a fuss. Of course, Australia has a fairly robust democracy, which means we’re limited in how we can clamp down on civil disobedience. The Australian public gets all uppity about police brutality. But if you’re buying the coal for use in a developing country, you could probably ask the military to just bash the protestors instead.

Citizens in my country won’t support new coal-fired power stations. Is there any way to convince them this is a good idea? We don’t recommend challenging their views directly. The argument can easily become bogged down in "facts". At the Brumby government, we know facts are dangerous to promoting the interests of industry. That’s why we prefer to manipulate the public subtly and indirectly.

What we do in Victoria is simply call brown coal something else. We’d been trying to set up a new brown coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley for ages, but the public wasn’t buying it. So a little while ago we decided to establish a company called Dual Gas to oversee the project. This allows us to refer to the power plant as Dual Gas, even though it uses brown coal. Neat, huh? Can’t remember who came up with that idea, might have been Batcho. Anyway, it’s a corker. You might want to try it in your own country.

The other thing we do is call our plants "clean coal". Of course, they’re not "clean coal" because that would involve capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground. Bugger if we know how to do that.

But we’ve found that if we mention "clean coal" enough times, it tends to stick in people’s heads and, eventually, they start to believe it. Read this next sentence. Clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal, clean coal. Now when we say "coal", what's the first word that pops in your head? Exactly.'

Greg Foyster is a Melbourne-based writer. He was involved with Environment Victoria's campaign against the original HRL power plant proposal and is the former environment columnist for Voiceworks magazine.

19 October 2009

Green Roofs Save on Carbon Overheads

Excerpt from New Scientist, 3 October 2009

'...a new study has measured the amount of carbon absorbed by 13 different green roofs.

Kristin Getter of Michigan State University in East Lansing and her colleagues found that the roofs absorbed up to 375 grams of carbon per square metre over the two years of their study.

That may not sound like much, but it adds up. If every roof in a city the size of Detroit, Michigan, with around a million inhabitants, were a green roof, it would remove as much carbon from the atmosphere each year as taking 10,000 mid-sized SUVs off the road...if you grow a green roof, you need to keep it up there for a long time. It takes seven years for the roof to offset the carbon used for its building materials and become truly carbon negative.'

Another Kind of Debt - Who Really Owes Whom?

click image to enlarge - image from Global Footprint Network

Campaigns to end poverty and to drop the debt burden of 'developing' nations rightly call for the freeing of people from the millstone of debt, which can help people lift themselves out of poverty.

This debt, spoken of as debt ‘owed’ by the majority world nations to the 'developed' countries, is a monetary debt. However there is another kind of debt – ecological debt.

Ecological debt accounts not for monetary flow, but the flow of biophysical resources - which raises the question, who really owes whom? Who should be asking for and granting debt forgiveness?

When we talk about debt, we don’t talk about the current [and historical] ecological deficits that many of the wealthy countries are running, and how this impacts on other nations, particularly those supplying the ecological capacity.

The issue of ecological debt was identified by Mahatma Gandhi many years ago when he observed:

‘It took Britain the exploitation of half the globe to be what it is today. How many globes will it take India?’

All human beings, whatever their lifestyles, generate impacts on nature. We use nature’s products and services to feed, house and clothe ourselves, and otherwise sustain our existence.

Until recently, concerns over resource use focused on the depletion of finite non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and minerals, however it is being increasingly recognised that it is renewable resources which are the non-negotiable limiting factors for sustaining life.

The biosphere’s ability to renew itself is being systematically undermined by the erosion of ecosystem services (eg. climate stability, biological diversity) and the excessive harvesting of resources.

Overshoot – Living Beyond Our Ecological Means

The current development paradigm which dominates both economics and politics globally is that of continuous economic growth into the indefinite future. Historically, countries have sustained this growth by appropriating carrying capacity (resources, ecological services, waste sinks) from elsewhere through purchasing power, with some waste (CO2, CFCs etc) being ‘dumped’ into the global commons.

However this model of dependence on ‘ghost acreage’, which has both the developed and developing world alike in its grasp, ignores one simple reality – not everyone can be a net importer of biocapacity.

Once the biological carrying capacity of the planet is exceeded, ‘development’ occurs through the liquidation of the planet’s natural capital stock, switching from the reproductive use of the resource base, which leaves it intact, to extractive use, which reduces the total store. Instead of living off the Earth’s ‘interest’, humanity begins draining the Earth's 'capital'.

When humanity’s ecological demands in terms of resource consumption and waste generation exceeds what nature can supply, we move into what is termed ‘ecological overshoot’.

Just as constant erosion of business capital weakens an enterprise, such overshoot erodes the planet’s ‘natural capital’, and reduces humanity’s ultimate means. It would be unthinkable to run a business without keeping proper accounts - a business which does not track its activities and keep accurate financial records runs the risk of bankruptcy - yet this is precisely the approach we take with the only planet within our reach capable of supporting life.

Accounting tools are needed to track our biophysical, as well as our monetary wealth.

The Ecological Footprint is a resource accounting tool developed by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), which has been working with the United Nations Environment Program, World Wide Fund for Nature, and the European Environment Agency, among others.

The Footprint is an expression of human demand on nature, expressed in terms of land area. This demand can then be compared to how much productive land, or biocapacity, is available at the national and global level. It is exactly like the economic concept of supply and demand – except unlike market economics, it relates to the real world.

Footprint accounts track the flow of not money, but biophysical resources. These bean counters really do count beans! And cotton. And timber. And the share of the atmosphere each country is occupying with its C02 emissions. This is possible because we know how much productive land is required to sustain these resource flows.

GFN maintains a set of accounts for 200 countries, each with 5,4000 data points. The calculations in the National Footprint Accounts are primarily based on international data sets published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Energy Agency, the UN Statistics Division, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

A national Footprint is determined by multiplying consumption per capita by population, and is corrected for trade by by adding imports to and subtracting exports from national production to determine the consumption figure. Results from this analysis shed light on a country's ecological performance. A country has an ecological reserve if its Footprint is smaller than its biological capacity. Otherwise it runs an ecological deficit.

Today, most countries, and the world as a whole, are running ecological deficits. The world's ecological deficit is equal to its ecological overshoot. While countries can offset ecological deficits through trade or liquidation of national resources, the global ecological deficit cannot be offset through trade. In 2003, humanity's Footprint exceeded the Earth's biological capacity by over 25 percent.

As ecological deficits continue to increase in many countries, the predominant geopolitical lines could shift from the current division between "developed" and "developing" countries. Instead, the line may fall between ecological debtors, countries that depend on net imports of ecological services to maintain their economies, and ecological creditors, countries with ecological reserves. As the world recognizes the implications of ecological scarcity, ecological assets will gain in economic importance relative to yesterday's gold reserves or today's financial assets.

Availability of ecological capacity will play increasingly important role in determining a country's economic competitiveness and its citizens' ability to lead secure, rewarding lives.

High Footprints tend to be the hallmark of ecological debtors, who are running risky ecological deficits in a world where ecological capacity is diminishing.

Ecological creditors may realise that they are liquidating their assets too cheaply in a world where ecological assets will become more valuable.

Both debtors and creditors are beginning to realize the significance of ecological assets and recognize the economic advantage of curbing their Footprints.

What are the opportunities that
emerge from recognising ecological limits?

Quality of Life For All, Within The Means of Nature

Ultimately, the Footprint calls attention to the fact that we only have one planet – just like a household, there is only so much budget to spend.

The question is not whether we can sustain more than six billion people on a western industrial model of development, but how to sustain the projected global population at an adequate standard of living for all within the regenerative biocapacity of one planet.

The quest for the 21st century is how can we secure quality of life for everyone within the means of our one-planet budget?

18 October 2009

Stiglitz and Sen's Manifesto on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress

Excerpt from Worldchanging, 15 October 2009

'A recent report commissioned by the French government ...foreshadows why and how GDP should be supplemented as the de facto measure of progress.

The authors are world-class - Joseph Stiglitz was the chair, advised by Amartya Sen. Commission members included Nobelists and creative thinkers Kenneth Arrow and Daniel Kahneman, Nick Stern of Stern Review fame, and Robert D. Putnam...

In the edited highlights below, Stiglitz, Sen, and their companions weigh in with their perspectives and recommendations.

Key Messages

The seemingly bright growth performance of the world economy between 2004 and 2007 may have been achieved at the expense of future growth. It is also clear that some of the performance was a “mirage”, profits that were based on prices that had been inflated by a bubble.

The whole Commission is convinced that the crisis is teaching us a very important lesson: those attempting to guide the economy and our societies are like pilots trying to steering a course without a reliable compass. The decisions they (and we as individual citizens) make depend on what we measure, how good our measurements are and how well our measures are understood. We are almost blind when the metrics on which action is based are ill-designed or when they are not well understood. For many purposes, we need better metrics. Fortunately, research in recent years has enabled us to improve our metrics, and it is time to incorporate in our measurement systems some of these advances.

The first main message of our report is that the time has come to adapt our system of measurement of economic activity. There are now many products whose quality is complex, multi-dimensional and subject to rapid change. This is obvious for goods, like cars, computers, washing machines and the like, but is even truer for services, such as medical services, educational services, information and communication technologies, research activities and financial services. Capturing quality change is a tremendous challenge, yet this is vital to measuring real income and real consumption, some of the key determinants of people’s material well-being.

Another key message, and unifying theme of the report, is that the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being. Changing emphasis does not mean dismissing GDP and production measures. They emerged from concerns about market production and employment; they continue to provide answers to many important questions such as monitoring economic activity. But emphasizing well-being is important because there appears to be an increasing gap between the information contained in aggregate GDP data and what counts for common people’s well-being.

To define what well-being means, a multidimensional definition has to be used. Based on academic research and a number of concrete initiatives developed around the world, the Commission has identified the following key dimensions that should be taken into account. At least in principle, these dimensions should be considered simultaneously:

i. Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth);
ii. Health;
iii. Education;
iv. Personal activities including work
v. Political voice and governance;
vi. Social connections and relationships;
vii. Environment (present and future conditions);
viii. Insecurity, of an economic as well as a physical nature.

All these dimensions shape people’s well-being, and yet many of them are missed by conventional income measures.


Recommendation 1: When evaluating material well-being, look at income and consumption rather than production. As statisticians and economists know very well, GDP mainly measures market production – expressed in money units – and as such it is useful. However, it has often been treated as if it were a measure of economic well-being. Conflating the two can lead to misleading indications about how well-off people are and entail the wrong policy decisions.

Recommendation 2: Emphasize the household perspective. While it is informative to track the performance of economies as a whole, trends in citizens’ material living standards are better followed through measures of household income and consumption. Indeed, the available national accounts data shows that in a number of OECD countries real household income has grown quite differently from real GDP per capita, and typically at a lower rate.

Recommendation 3: Consider income and consumption jointly with wealth. A household that spends its wealth on consumption goods increases its current well-being but at the expense of its future well-being. The consequences of such behavior would be captured in a household’s balance sheet, and the same holds for other sectors of the economy, and for the economy as a whole. Measures of wealth are central to measuring sustainability. What is carried over into the future necessarily has to be expressed as stocks – of physical, natural, human and social capital. The right valuation of these stocks plays a crucial role, and is often problematic. There is also a need to “stress test” balance sheets with alternative valuations when market prices for assets are not available or are subject to bubbles and bursts. Some more direct non-monetary indicators may be preferable when the monetary valuation is very uncertain or difficult to derive.

Recommendation 4: Give more prominence to the distribution of income, consumption and wealth. Median consumption (income, wealth) provides a better measure of what is happening to the “typical” individual or household than average consumption (income, wealth). But for many purposes, it is also important to know what is happening at the bottom of the income/wealth distribution (captured in poverty statistics), or at the top.

Recommendation 5: Broaden income measures to non-market activities. Many of the services people received from other family members in the past are now purchased on the market. This shift translates into a rise in income as measured in the national accounts and may give a false impression of a change in living standards, while it merely reflects a shift from non-market to market provision of services. Once one starts focusing on non-market activities, the question of leisure arises. Consuming the same bundle of goods and services but working for 1500 hours a year instead of 2000 hours a year implies an increase in one’s standard of living.

Recommendation 6: Quality of life depends on people’s objective conditions and capabilities. Steps should be taken to improve measures of people’s health, education, personal activities and environmental conditions. In particular, substantial effort should be devoted to developing and implementing robust, reliable measures of social connections, political voice, and insecurity that can be shown to predict life satisfaction. What really matters are the capabilities of people, that is, the extent of their opportunity set and of their freedom to choose among this set, the life they value. While the precise list of the features affecting quality of life inevitably rests on value judgments, there is a consensus that quality of life depends on people’s health and education, their everyday activities (which include the right to a decent job and housing), their participation in the political process, the social and natural environment in which they live, and the factors shaping their personal and economic security.

Recommendation 7: Quality-of-life indicators in all the dimensions covered should assess inequalities in a comprehensive way. Inequalities in quality of life should be assessed across people, socio-economic groups, gender and generations.

Recommendation 8: Surveys should be designed to assess the links between various quality-of-life domains for each person, and this information should be used when designing policies in various fields. It is critical to address questions about how developments in one domain of quality of life affect other domains, and how developments in all the various fields are related to income. This is important because the consequences for quality of life of having multiple disadvantages far exceed the sum of their individual effects.

Recommendation 9: Statistical offices should provide the information needed to aggregate across quality-of-life dimensions, allowing the construction of different indexes. While assessing quality-of-life requires a plurality of indicators, there are strong demands to develop a single summary measure. Several summary measures of quality of life are possible, depending on the question addressed and the approach taken. Some of these measures are already being used, such as average levels of life-satisfaction for a country as a whole, or composite indices that aggregate averages across objective domains, such as the Human Development Index.

Recommendation 10: Measures of both objective and subjective well-being provide key information about people’s quality of life. Statistical offices should incorporate questions to capture people’s life evaluations, hedonic experiences and priorities in their own surveys. Quantitative measures of these subjective aspects hold the promise of delivering not just a good measure of quality of life per se, but also a better understanding of its determinants, reaching beyond people’s income and material conditions.

Recommendation 11: Sustainability assessment requires a well-identified dashboard of indicators. The distinctive feature of the components of this dashboard should be that they are interpretable as variations of some underlying “stocks”. The assessment of sustainability is complementary to the question of current well-being or economic performance, and must be examined separately.

To take an analogy, when driving a car, a meter that added up in one single number the current speed of the vehicle and the remaining level of gasoline would not be of any help to the driver. Both pieces of information are critical and need to be displayed in distinct, clearly visible areas of the dashboard. At a minimum, in order to measure sustainability, what we need are indicators that inform us about the change in the quantities of the different factors that matter for future well-being.

Recommendation 12: The environmental aspects of sustainability deserve a separate follow-up based on a well-chosen set of physical indicators. In particular there is a need for a clear indicator of our proximity to dangerous levels of environmental damage (such as associated with climate change or the depletion of fishing stocks.) Placing a monetary value on the natural environment is often difficult and separate sets of physical indicators will be needed to monitor the state of the environment. This is in particular the case when it comes to irreversible and/or discontinuous alterations to the environment.

The Commission believes that a global debate around the issues and recommendations raised in this report provides an important venue for a discussion of societal values, for what we, as a society, care about, and whether we are really striving for what is important.'

This piece originally appeared on Worldchanging Canada

Confuse People and Calm Traffic!

Excerpt from Worldchanging, 4 January 2008

'...the small (13,000 residents) town of Bohmte, Germany decided to deal with its own traffic and safety problems [by] eliminating most signals and lane markers altogether. On one section of a major thoroughfare through the city, Bohmte officials have erased lane markers, torn up sidewalks, and bulldozed curbs in a radical effort to force people to use common sense and courtesy when driving rather than relying on lane markers. The only traffic rules that remain are a speed limit of 30 mph, and a requirement that everyone who uses the road yield to the right.

The concept, known as "shared space" traffic management, originated in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago.

The premise of shared space is that people pay more attention when they're not distracted by "highway clutter," in the words of its founder, traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Shared space relies on environmental context - in this case, a landscape unlittered by signs - to influence human behavior.

"Our behavior in a theatre or a church differs from a pub or in a football stadium as we understand the signs and signals through years of cultural immersion," Monderman told an interviewer in 2006.

"Likewise if we see children playing in the street, we are more likely to slow down than if we saw a sign saying 'Danger, Children!'"

Put less diplomatically, shared space makes people confused. People who are confused slow down, calming traffic and reducing accidents. That's exactly how it has worked in Bohmte, where city officials plan to gradually expand the program to include other public spaces where pedestrians and cyclists share roads with drivers - roads, in other words, other than highways.

The changes have had the added benefit of improving the experience of walking or cycling down the road, as a maze of unattractive signs and lane markers have given way to a single stretch of red-brick-colored pavement and as drivers have moderated their speeds.

Shared space may have been around for more than three decades, but it's just started to really catch on in recent years, with various versions of shared space programs in place or underway in nearly a dozen cities around the world...'

Swap vs Bright Green Lives: Neighborliness, Innovation and Sustainability


Excerpt from
Worldchanging, 7 April 2008

'Two approaches have tended to define the debate about sustainable prosperity in recent years. The first is conscious consumption, which manifests at the shallow end as green shopping (even greenwashing) but can prove out at a deeper level as strategic consumption. The second is green technology, which is a topic that we tend to cover here in great depth, and which covers everything from energy to transportation, housing to product design. Sometimes that technology is trivial, sometimes it is profound.

These approaches are complimentary, and both have a lot to offer as we try to negotiate our way to a bright green future. But there is a danger in thinking that all we have to do is design better substitutes for the products we already consume, and then convince people to buy them.

I call this idea "the Swap." It's sort of a middle stage on the road to a better future, where people have accepted that something must change, but have not really gotten their heads around the idea that everything must change. Therefore, the Swap is a form of denial.

It's an attractive fantasy - instead of diving a Hummer, living in a McMansion and shopping at the Gap, I can drive a Prius, live in an EcoMansion and shop at Gaiam - but it's still playing make-believe, because the systems that support and enable those choices are themselves unsustainable. Highways are destructive, even when full of hybrids; sprawl is unsustainable, even when the individual houses are green; we don't even know what sustainable clothing would look like, much less how to make conventional retail green.

No, if we're going to avert ecological destruction, we need to to not only do things differently, we need to do different things. We need to work to build dense, walkable neighborhoods composed of green buildings served by bike infrastructure and transit and green infrastructure, suffused with good design choices and smart technologies that let us live in a different set of relationships with our stuff, the materials we use and the energy that powers our lives. By embracing innovation in technology, design, planning and policy, we can transform the systems around us, and provide ourselves with a whole new array of much more sustainable choices.

Bright green lives will not look like the lives we live today. That doesn't mean that they'll be less attractive. On the contrary. If we do it right both our quality of life and our measurable prosperity may increase dramatically. Showing how and why this can happen is one of my major obsessions at the moment.

But there is a side to this transition which is less science than art: understanding how we can reconnect with one another and our better selves...to ignore the intangible, creative, emotional, even spiritual aspects of this transformation is to fail.

Many of the unsustainable systems we're trying to change offer as their major solace the idea of individual independence, substituting a layer of things and commercialism between the citizen and his or her community. This is not a new insight.

However, as we change those systems, we're going to have to embrace new ways of pleasurably re-establishing the reality of interdependence in people's minds. We need to remind people how to be good neighbors, how to build friendships, how to share, how to see their enlightened self-interest in public goods, how to be a good citizen.

Most North Americans, I'm afraid, have lost the arts of community. The same is true of a great many Europeans and Japanese. Indeed, this loss, this "bowling alone" mentality, seems to be a major symptom of the post-industrial transition.

So one of the major design challenges we face is figuring out how to use architecture, urban planning, the arts, new forms of community engagement and new forms of commerce to both lure people back into the public sphere and equip them with the mental and emotional tools to thrive there.

What might such tools look like? Some are simple placemaking tools, like benches in parks. Others are more technical, like open government tools or walkshed technologies. Still others more conceptual, like artworks that remind us to make heroic day-to-day choices or that sharing can be easy and fun.

But without a doubt, the best tools are the ones that incorporate their lessons into their operations. That's part of why I find A Pattern Book for Neighborly Houses interesting:

"According to national research studies, a large percentage of Americans would accept affordable housing in their neighborhood if it fit in. The goal of this document is to provide a resource for Habitat for Humanity to create houses that are neighborly and will contribute positively to our nation's great neighborhoods, while also playing a constructive role in the creation of desirable new neighborhoods."

While the pattern book is primarily focused on low-income housing, the patterns it recommends would make most any single-family house more neighborly than conventional construction. It's worth a look, and it suggests to me a whole new discipline in bright green design that aims at conviviality and expressed connection.

The point being, I don't think it's impossible to imagine us getting much better at hacking designs to create stronger communities. While we don't want to wait around for a mythical transformation of human nature, some very human inclinations and strengths go largely untapped in contemporary life, and I don't think that when we approach changing the world, we ought to exclude the possibility of changing ourselves.

So what do you think? What ways do you see to incorporate neighborliness into sustainable innovation, and visa versa? How would you go about building a bright green community?'