America Can Have Energy Independence with Renewable Sources


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President Richard Nixon fumbled the first energy crisis in 1973. The oil-producing countries that formed OPEC wanted to control the price of oil and cut off supply to create scarcity with the hope that this would increase the price per barrel. America had no concerns about oil supply prior to the embargo—resources appeared to be limitless—but being cut off from the lifeblood that was at the very center of the modern economy forced the country to face its vulnerability.

In a normal market when demand for a resource is consistent—oil has a very low price elasticity—prices rise when the resource becomes limited. Energy prices at this time were fixed by the government and reviewed infrequently. The combination of artificially low prices and manufactured scarcity set the stage for national chaos.  Gasoline was rationed, people waited in gas lines for hours, fistfights at gas stations were frequent and theories of peak oil proliferated. Americans have rarely faced scarcity and this event created a vivid memory nearly as strong as the Great Depression. The specter of energy shortage haunted every presidential administration after Nixon, and few presidents have made a concerted effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Jimmy Carter failed to mandate a 20% solar power contribution to the energy mix. One might argue that the technology was neither efficient nor affordable enough to achieve that lofty goal but the country may have exceeded it in the 4 decades that followed. Instead the country became more dependent on fossil fuels and even went to war in the Middle East to protect access to oil. The “crisis” was over when Ronald Reagan was elected. On his first day in office he removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House in a symbolic rejection of renewable energy.

The oil embargo left a lasting impression, but the wrong one. America had not faced an energy shortage. In fact, there are more known oil reserves than can be used without destroying the biosphere. Economist Vaclav Smil confirmed that, “our reliance on coal and hydrocarbons and the rise of nonfossil energy will not take place because of physical exhaustion of accessible fossil fuels but… because of the mounting cost of their extraction and, even more importantly, because of environmental consequences of their combustion.”

The protesters at Standing Rock were fighting the pipeline to protect their ecosystem, but they should look north at the source of crude oil for a graver concern. The Bakken Formation straddles North Dakota and Canada and oil deep in the bedrock can only be extracted with the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This extraction will continue whether or not the pipeline is completed.

Crude oil from the U.S. portion of the Bakken Formation is being extracted in one of the most environmentally insensitive ways. Fracking involves the high-pressure injection of 2-8 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals up to 8,000 feet deep into the earth’s crust. This pushes the oil out of the bedrock. The wastewater is left in the ground, below the aquifer, leaving open the probability of water table contamination. The waste water disposal wells have been linked to an increase in earthquakes, particularly in Oklahoma which had 907 magnitude 3 or higher earthquakes in 2015. The new oil fields have created numerous logistical problems including how to get the oil to the market. Several transnational and interstate pipeline projects have been developed to speed crude oil to the market and feed the world’s insatiable appetite for cheap fuel. Environmental objections have blocked some of the projects, most recently the Keystone XL pipeline, because a spill would be catastrophic, especially if dispersed into a body of water. Crude oil is toxic and nearly impossible to remove without harsh chemicals that amplify toxicity to the ecosystem. Oil spills from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have caused significant damage and destroyed the aquaculture, animal life, and livelihoods of the people in the impacted areas.

Even including recent advances in domestic production the U.S still imports 9.4 million barrels of oil per day, with 31% of it coming from OPEC. The American oil and gas industry, with the full support of the government, is encouraging dependence on fossil fuels for their financial gain at the expense of water resources and regional ecosystems, and the much larger global risk of climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculated that fossil fuel consumption is the primary cause of GHG emissions in the U.S. Scientific consensus has shown the linkage between GHG emissions and the increase in the earth’s average temperature, which is causing climate change. To counter this effect the world’s countries, in partnership with the United Nations, agreed to GHG emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement. The US voluntarily set an emissions reduction target of 26-28% by 2025, a sensible target that they are unlikely to hit.

There are over 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S. and the DAPL will transport 520,000 barrels of oil per day for approximately 40 years, or 7.5 billion barrels of oil. According to the EPA there are 0.43 metric tons CO2 per barrel of crude oil. Oil from this pipeline would add approximately 3.2 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, which does not include emissions generated by extraction and refining. Carbon emissions impact the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The definition of sustainable development, which was established in Our Common Future, is that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Rather than focus our attention on the real crisis, reducing the use of fossil fuels and exploring less environmentally impactful fuel alternatives, we are continuing our dependence and paying huge environmental and social consequences. In this one case the oil extraction process is destroying millions of gallons of water, local aquifers, risking environmental damage from spills, creating the potential for earthquakes, threatening the health and livelihood of the local population, the Missouri River, and other areas along the four states that the pipeline traverses, and will add GHG emissions to the atmosphere for the next 40 years, increasing climate change.

Although this oil will still find a way to get from the production fields in North Dakota to refineries in the south of the US, some of which will be exported to the highest bidder—not ensuring energy independence, only the largest profit for oil and gas companies. The pipeline only expedites this process. It can be argued that leaving it in the ground should be the default option because of the environmental consequences. Instead the Sioux are facing another round of brutality at the hands of the U.S. government, who are protecting the rights of an industry, not the people. It is socially ethical to continue exploring for new oil and gas reserves, and exploiting existing ones, at significant financial and environmental costs instead of focusing our resources on an alternative energy strategy before climate change is irreversible?

Image Credit: efergy


Standoff at Standing Rock: Oil vs Water


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Thousands of people, including environmentalists, American war veterans, and indigenous people representing over 300 native tribes, joined the Standing Rock Sioux Indians in a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline is a $3.7 billion project that will run 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, allowing an average of 520,000 barrels of crude oil per day to be transported from oil fields in North Dakota to repositories in Illinois. Energy Transfer Partners LLC, the company responsible for the project, worked with state governments to minimize environmental impact by shifting the pipeline’s path away from large cities including Bismarck, and to run in parallel with existing pipelines where possible. The company spent over $189 million in direct payment to landowners for easement payments. In some cases the company was empowered by state government to invoke eminent domain when it could not reach an agreement with landowners and forced their way forward.

The Sioux claimed they were not adequately engaged in planning and began a protest in April, 2016, by camping out in an informal settlement known as Sacred Rock. The number of protesters increased when the tribe’s legal injunction to stop the project was ignored. The pipeline moved forward with the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who reportedly destroyed the ancient burial site of a tribal leader to avoid delays posed by an archaeological investigation. The protest grew to thousands during the fall of 2016, and shocking images of law enforcement using rubber bullets, water cannons, attack dogs, and pepper spray against unarmed protesters garnered international attention.

The objective of the Water Protectors—the name chosen by the protesters—was to block the granting of an easement that would allow the pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, which feeds the Missouri River and threatens the health of millions along the river, as well as the fragile Ogallala Aquifer, the Sioux’s sole water source. Any project that could potentially threaten the water supply normally requires an environmental-impact statement, but Energy Transfer Partners structured the pipeline into 21 smaller projects to avoid this requirement. The protesters got their wish on December 4th when the U.S. Army Corps requested that the impact study be conducted before the easement can be granted, a process that could take more than 6 months. This victory may be short lived. The pipeline is nearly complete and President-elect Trump has voiced his approval for the completion of the pipeline; many protesters refused to leave and are digging in for the winter.

The standoff poses many ethical questions, including environmental justice, ecological integrity, social justice, as well as the socioeconomic and cultural concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux. This case also provides a lens to view the ethics of the U.S. energy policy which is enabling environmental damage caused by the extraction, transportation, and use of crude oil. The Sioux are protecting the water, cultural legacy and the environment as sacred resources while the U.S. is pursuing an energy policy that places the economy above all else.

There are over 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S. and the DAPL will transport 520,000 barrels of oil per day for approximately 40 years, or 7.5 billion barrels of oil. According to the Enviromental Protection Agency there are 0.43 metric tons CO2 per barrel of crude oil. Oil from this pipeline would add approximately 3.2 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, which does not include emissions generated by extraction and refining. Carbon emissions impact the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Although this oil will still find a way to get from the production fields in North Dakota to refineries in the south of the US, some of which will be exported to the highest bidder—not ensuring energy independence, only the largest profit for oil and gas companies. The pipeline only expedites this process. It can be argued that leaving it in the ground should be the default option because of the environmental consequences. Instead the Sioux are facing another round of brutality at the hands of the U.S. government, who are protecting the rights of an industry, not the people. It is socially ethical to continue exploring for new oil and gas reserves, and exploiting existing ones, at significant financial and environmental costs instead of focusing our resources on an alternative energy strategy before climate change is irreversible?

Fossil fuels will remain a large part of the energy mix, and some sectors, such as aviation, do not have any known alteratives. The DAPL and many other pipelines being built across the United States and Canada will continue to supply the insatiable demand for cheap energy for decades, long after it becomes necessary for the world to step down fossil fuel consumption. Until this relationship ends there may not be any significant progress on alternatives. It is critical for the world to begin an energy transition to alternative fuels to protect the environment and the current economy.

As the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, remarked, “We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” The ethical choices made today will determine the options our children with have in the future.

Image Credit: Rezpect Our Water

The Benefits of Waste to Energy Plants


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One of the more pressing challenges that face cities today is an effective waste management program. A majority of cities truck waste out of the city to a distant landfill, often at great expense. Americans generate an average of 4.3 pounds of waste per day. In 2015, the United States alone generated more than 258 million tons of municipal solid waste, with only 34.6% being recycled. 136 million tons were sent to landfill, which is the second-largest source of human-related methane gas emissions. This is a growing problem because we are generating more waste and have fewer places to go with it. Landfill prices are rising as land becomes more scare, driving up the costs of waste management for municipalities that are already struggling with infrastructure projects.

One option that is very attractive is Waste to Energy (WTE), which extracts the energy from waste by incinerating it. This combustion powers a generator the same way fossil fuels would. However, the process captures gases so that it does not add any pollution or greenhouse gases. Incineration can reduce the total volume of trash by 90% or more. It also prevents one ton of carbon dioxide release for every ton of waste burned. Additionally, metals are extracted, which can be recycled for an additional revenue stream.

There are several reasons why cities may not pursue this solution, including resistance from residents (not in my backyard, or NIMBY), but the main concern might be cost. Like many renewable energy projects there are large capital costs, but significant returns over the life cycle of the project. Municipal bonds can pay for the project over a 25-year period, while the WTE plant could last more than 40 years. Once the project has been paid off the municipality could save millions by reducing the tipping fee per ton of waste, generating electricity, and saving on trucking it out. Once additional costs associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions are calculated in, the long-term investment can become more attractive. GHG emissions are reduced by reducing the distance trucks need to travel to deposit the waste, the reduction of energy produced by fossil fuel plants, and the significant reduction of methane being emitted by landfill.

Finally, these plants are not known for their aesthesis, making them even more difficult to place in neighborhoods. Not in my backyard (NIMBY) is a genuine problem for WTE. However, in Copenhagen, the Copenhill / Amager Bakke plant solves one additional problem; aesthetics. The plant not only is used to incinerate 400,000 tons of waste per year to provide 50,000 households with electricity and 120,000 households with district heating, but it was designed as a green space with a ski slope.

Building Resilience into Complex Systems



When a person is single they make their own decisions and any consequences are self-contained. In a relationship, the needs and desires of a second person must be taken into consideration. Decision making calls for ongoing compromise between both people. As more people are added to the household, including other adults, family members or children, the system becomes more complex and requires structure to maintain its equilibrium. Communication becomes more critical to understand the needs of each member and achieve a happy home.  This scalable approach can be used on most complex systems; the greater the complexity, the greater the need for communication and understanding. System may have underlying similarities, but each is unique and may not respond to a one-size-fits-all approach, the same way each household is unique.

An example in education is Brazil’s Fund for Strengthening Our Schools (Fundescola) program, partially funded with loans from the World Bank. In order to reorganize the country’s public school system, the government imposed a top-down strategy for all 185,000 schools impacting 45 million students. Where municipalities had previously governed their regional school system, the new approach empowered the schools themselves. They were given 50% of the budget and the ability to make decisions on their own behalf. Schools that already had a strong interconnected network between the administration, teachers, parents and students succeeded in this new environment, but schools lacking structure faltered. Many of the schools, especially in urban areas that had experienced exponential growth in the student population, struggled just to address the daily needs and maintenance of the school building; the program burdened them with more administrative requirements. Without additional support this program will create a larger divide between success stories and the struggling schools will fall further behind. The well-intentioned program provided a template to unify the school system, and flexibility to tailor it for each school, but cannot provide the necessary structure to help it succeed.

Building a resilient structure in a company also requires communication and flexibility, as well as a clear objectives. Larger companies are comprised of separate teams that must work together toward the same goal. This cannot be achieved without leadership, planning, open communication, and an understanding of how the teams interrelate. As discussed in Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, there are many ways in which a system can go awry, but there are paths to success. One case centered on the conflicting goals of a comprehensive water management system that needed to maintain a consistent source of potable water and produce hydro-power while simultaneously protecting the biological integrity of the watershed. It required developing a new structure, multiple planning and development stages, model simulations, and communication between the teams. This communication wasn’t achieved only in meetings, but with the assistance of “interpreters” who could, for instance, help the engineers understand the concerns of the ecologists who had been added to the team. All of the parties had a stake in aligning the conflicting goals, and success was only achieved by consensus. They will need to continuously strive toward this shifting goals over time.

This approach can also be applied to the global issue of climate change. Humanity has always altered the planet throughout our history, however we have altered it beyond recognition over the last 200 years. We have changed not just the face of the earth with development, but the climate, oceans and atmosphere.  Our actions had unforeseeable consequences, notably the burning of fossil fuels that has caused a series of events leading to climate change, which has had different impacts on every ecological system. Our shared future is dependent on correcting this problem, but engineering a solution—creating a technological response to counterbalance our previous mistakes—may only complicate or amplify the existing problems. The earth’s climate system is so complex that we cannot accurately predict the outcome of a proposed response to solve one part of the problem we created. It is unlikely that we will intentionally return to a pre-industrial lifestyle, but we must find a way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and explore effective alternatives, rather than attempt to counterbalance greenhouse gases with another technology like carbon capture and storage (CCS). Our solution may end up being worse than our current problem.

There is a childhood rhyme about an old woman who swallows a fly. She reacts to the minor problem with a logical solution; a spider. This does not resolve the problem. She continues using more extreme measures to deal with the consequence of her previous decisions, creating more complex problems, until finally the poor woman perishes from her solution, not the original cause. Should our planet take reactive measures to respond to a problem with a known solution—reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels—we may be in for similar fate. We can avoid this by continuing to work together on mitigation and adaptation and for each person to make a personal choice to change.

Image Credit: Association for Library Service to Children

Adapting to Climate Change


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The world’s cities are at the greatest risk from climate change socially and economically. Each city will face its own challenge based on their regional location and may experience increased incidence of drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, and extreme weather events. Many cities are built near large bodies of water, including oceans and rivers, which increases the threat of rising sea levels. Cities in the developing world, especially South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, have additional challenges in that they are exploding in population, but do not have the infrastructure or resources to keep up with the day-to-day requirements of running a city, never mind funding adaptation strategies in response to climate change. Millions of people live on the margins of most large cities and are most exposed to the impact of weather events. One only need look at Haiti, an under-resourced country that has suffered a catastrophic earthquake and two hurricanes for an example of development needs and human suffering.

The developed countries have a different problem in responding to climate change. Most cities have an aging infrastructure, inefficient housing stock, and a haphazardly built energy grid. Many of these elements will need to be improved or replaced in the coming decades and will need to be reinforced to withstand the greater likelihood of extreme weather, and insulated to not only reduce GHG emissions, but also to protect against extreme temperature variations. Transportation systems, including roadways and mass transit, are also at threat to climate change.

Today more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities and this number will continue to grow as we move away from an agrarian-based economy. Cities are also the biggest polluters and collectively contribute 70 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the challenge of creating new and updating existing infrastructure provides a real opportunity to adapt and mitigate climate change. The World Bank estimated that climate-proofing new construction may add 1-2% to the total budget, but this up-front cost is a long-term investment against future events. These large projects will require substantially financing and most cities may need public private partnerships to achieve results. One sector they may look to partner with is the insurance industry, which will need to create a new model to pay out for environmental catastrophes that can cost in the billions; we can avoid some of those future costs by adapting now.

There are already many known solutions but need financing, time, construction policies, and political motivation to implement them. However, some very simple and inexpensive steps can also be taken now. A prime example is in green building practices. Increasing green spaces in cities with roof gardens, vertical wall gardens, parks and bioswales provides an inexpensive measure with multiple benefits that have economic savings. These include absorbing storm water runoff saving on wastewater treatment, cleaning air pollution that reduces healthcare costs, heat island mitigation that reduces energy costs, absorbing GHG emissions which mitigates climate change, and also provides space to protect biodiversity. An additional benefit is that green spaces are aesthetically pleasing and can increase property values. Some cities have implemented these ideas for budgetary, as well as environmental, reasons, including Berlin, Denmark, Philadelphia, and my home town of New York City.

A takeaway is how to help cities in developing countries create sustainable infrastructure now, instead of building on the foundation of past building practices. Many of these cities are growing exponentially and need to provide living space for the millions of people who are flocking to economic hubs for employment and other opportunities. A question is how to guide their building practices, policies, and notably how to finance them. We may look at the financing mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which provides money to developing countries for climate change adaptation as a potential source. We have an ethical duty to assist these countries, as well as insure against a future where climate refugees will flood into the developed countries. We have seen Europe nearly destabilized by the Syrian refugee crisis, where more than a million people have fled a war-torn country. Millions more may be displaced by climate change. How do we work together to prevent a future humanitarian disaster?

Managing Decisions in Complex Systems


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Complex systems including climate change, health care policy, and consumer behavior are difficult to comprehend because they have many overlapping factors that influence each other; it is hard to accurately model an outcome. The further out the time horizon the more challenging it becomes to make an informed decision. The concept of bounded rationality, which is the idea that decision making is limited by the information that individuals have—or choose to pay attention to—further complicates the decision-making process. We often favor short term results from simple binary choices, which hampers resolving multilayered far-reaching problems.

This may explain why the international response to something as varied and long-term as climate change has been achingly slow. Each country has their own needs and desires, with more countries benefiting from keeping the status quo, for the moment, than those who are in peril. Building consensus on environmental issues through the use of framework conventions over the last 50 years has helped define the terms and potential resolutions to climate change. This United Nation’s coordinated effort led to the recent adoption of the Paris Agreement. The legally-binding treaty calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent the average global temperature from rising over 2˚ C above pre-industrial levels, however recent reports from NASA indicate that in the it has already increased by 0.87˚ C. While we have slowly built consensus on what is impacting the climate, we have continued business as usual. Instead of mitigating GHG emissions to reduce future consequences we are more likely to adapt to changes in our biosphere because we perceive that it is happening very slowly; 200 years is like a flash of lightening in relation to the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history but generations for humanity.

Caring for and protecting the earth for future generations has been a key to driving many of these treaties forward, and one may look at the success of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer for hope that we can influence positive change. When it was originally drafted there was no scientific consensus that human activity was causing ozone depletion, nor that its impact had significant consequences, but the prospect of global environmental damage, increases rates of skin cancer and cataracts were enough to build swift consensus among all nations. As opposed to climate change, the problem had immediate consequences, and was easier to understand and resolve. Reducing GHG emissions is also easy to accomplish, but it will take significant shifts in consumer and development behavior. Building on the public understanding and empathy for generations that have yet to be born may help drive this change, but we must agree on a collective action and move forward.

When a decision is forced, or when some parties are not part of the decision-making process—or choose not to be—implementation of a policy or treaty may be difficult. A prime example is in the hotly contested Affordable Health Care Act in the United States. Prior to its adoption the majority of the American people agreed that the health care system was broken and understood that runaway costs were bankrupting individuals, Medicare and Medicaid. In opposition to this finding, a majority also wanted to retain their own insurance and feared it being taken away. Parties interested in preventing the act from being successful, including the Republican party, leveraged these fears and launched misinformation campaigns, including the threats that death panels would make end-of-life decisions or that there would be a scarcity of resources. What started out as an effort to help all Americans get affordable health care became a toxic bill. Democrats were rightfully worried about backing the legislation; they were voted out of office in the midterm elections due to the misinformed public’s outrage. In order to push the legislation through Obama was forced to make many compromises that undermined its impact and may be its eventual undoing. Today Republicans continue to try to repeal the act because they had chosen not to participate in the legislation.

Building an understanding of what motivates individuals may help with both efforts. A study on the relevance of environmental issues in relation to green products was conducted in Turkey. The results were measured against the Schwartz value survey, which includes ten basic values: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, traditionalism, benevolence, obedience and security. While this study may have been skewed by being completed predominately by older affluent women, some of their findings may help the producers of green products or environmental policy makers succeed. Environmental concerns do drive consumer behavior, especially among affluent consumers who are more educated, particularly about the environment. As a group they have a higher willingness to pay for environmentally friendly goods, but most individuals do not have the means to pay more; we must make these goods more affordable for wider adoption. One interesting observation was that younger consumers where more informed about environmental concerns and their consumer habits were more flexible; they were also more interested in innovative products. Tapping into this segment might help drive future behavior changes in protecting the environment.

Managing decisions in complex systems can be completed with the right tools and methodology. Breaking a large problem into sub-components makes them easier to measure, which is the goal of mediated modeling.  Building consensus is one step, but surveying and engaging the community, building understanding, and modeling various outcomes of a decision will facilitate the decision making process.

Measuring GHG Emissions


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On November 4, 2016, the most recent international treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions went into force; the goal is to limit the average global temperature rise below 2˚ C. Emissions can linger in the atmosphere for centuries after being produced and trap more heat from the sun. The average global temperature has already risen 0.87˚ C above pre-industrial levels according to a 2015 report from NASA; it has increased by more than 3˚ C in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. With the future of our planet riding in the balance, it is important to accurately capture emissions.

GHG data is self-reported by each country, but there is not an easy nor consistent approach to record or track emissions over time. Emissions come from a variety of sources, however human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, has significantly increased the volume of GHG emissions entering the atmosphere. Measuring these volumes is often estimated based on an underlying factor, for instance the number of kilowatt hours of energy produced via specific fuel types, with fossil fuels such as oil and coal contributing more than renewable sources. Similarly, miles traveled by car, train or airplane are aggregated, or the number of cows per acre, to determine emissions produced. There are other metrics that are harder to quantify, including emissions from buildings which may be the leading source in dense-urban areas. The variety of housing stock, including age, insulation, energy consumption and fuel source, can vary significantly from building to building, never mind city to city. Waste is another factor that has wide variance on methane production. Complicating these measurements are the various carbon sinks that absorb emissions, which are being rapidly depleted. How can all of these various sources be quantified into one national total?

If any real effort is to be made to reduce GHG emissions, we need a consistent method for calculating an accurate estimate. The Global Protocol for Community-Scale GHG Inventories (GPC) responds to this challenge by establishing guidelines and methodology. The inventory outlines three primary factors: establishing the boundary within which the measurements will be conducted, an overarching and sector-specific account method, and a way to track performance over time. Sources for GHG emissions are grouped into six sectors, including stationary energy, transportation, waste, industrial processes and product use, agriculture and forestry, and out-of-boundary emissions (GHG emissions that take place outside the prescribe boundary); these are divided into sub-sectors. Finally the emissions are categorized by scope, with Scope 1 covering emissions created within the boundary, Scope 2 capturing all energy/heat related emissions, and scope 3 capturing the out-of-boundary emissions. Breaking down the complexities of what and how to measure each factor creates a consistent approach on how each sub-sector can be calculated into the total. This also helps identify the larger contributors, including energy production in Scope 2, so that they can be prioritized for remediation. Additionally, these measurements can be more easily tabulated to create a baseline and revisited to ensure reduction targets are being met.

New York City has successfully implanted effective measurement and GHG reduction efforts under differently titled, but similarly themed, programs under mayors Bloomberg and DeBlasio. New York is already a green leader due to its concentrated development, mass transit system, and lack of a manufacturing sector. However, there are still many ways to reduce emissions including the expansion of bike lanes for alternative bipedal transportation, increased green space, and building policies that call for tighter emissions standards in new construction and retrofits. New York’s Governor Cuomo also has a goal of adding more renewable energy to the mix to decrease emissions and reliance of fossil fuels. Without reliable reporting methods none of these successes could be captured or computed against a baseline. New York City also leads by example and shares its plans via the Compact of Mayors, which includes leaders from over 400 cities.

Measuring GHG emissions is going to become increasingly critical as we move into an uncertain future. By establishing a method for capturing these numbers, and continuing to modify it for ease of use, will help all parties, especially those in the developing world who may not have the resources to measure their impact. A takeaway is how to ensure this measurement is universally adopted so that self-reporting is as accurate as possible; perhaps it should be a condition established by COP23 in 2017. By facilitating the capture of this vital statistic will make it easier to accurately capture updates and determine areas for remediation.

Image Credit: NASA Global Climate Change

Measure your Carbon Footprint

Humans Are Causing the 6th Major Extinction Level Event


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“Everything is connected to everything else.” — Barry Commoner

Humanity is having an increasingly negative impact on our surroundings. We destroy habitas as we urbanize, which destroys native species of plants and animals. This destruction impacts the climate, water, and ultimately the richness of life, including our own. Each misstep creates a domino effect of non-linear consequences that are difficult to measure. These combined impacts are leading us into unknown territory, with humans, not nature, causing the sixth major extinction level event in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history.

The statistics included in “Consequences of Changing Biodiversity” should be alarming to any reader. The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 30% over the last 300 years, humanity is well on its way to using 70% of all fresh water for ourselves, and we have introduced invasive species for centuries that have dominated landscapes. We are responsible for the rise in temperature of the planet. Although the drama of melting glaciers recieves a lot of attention, one indirect consequence of a warming climate is the shift in the stability of the permafrost. This destroys the native mosses that protect the soil, allowing more invasive species to get a foothold and continue the warming cycle. This is also adding substantial amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Sadly, this is nothing new. Humans have been impacting our environment since we started hunting in groups, we are just getting more efficient. The article underscored the financial impact from the loss of diversity, which leads to a proliferation of invasive species, increased risks of forest fires, soil degradation, and erosion of agricultural productivity.

A Global Analysis of the Impacts of Urbanization on Bird and Plant Diversity Reveals Key Anthropogenic Drivers,” is slightly more optimistic. One surprise is that many cities included in their bird and flora study were predominately populated by native species; the taxonomy of the cities was regionally different and more diverse. A handful of plant species that were predominant across European cities were introduced to foreign countries before 1500, but the cities in 36 countries from the study did not share invasive species; this may change if we do not take action now. Urbanization has had a direct impact on the climate and biodiversity, which has led the extinction of native species. The article underlined the importance of preserving remnant vegetation that supports native bird populations; they have a symbiotic relationship.

Lastly, “Extinction by the Numbers,” may be read with mixed feelings of crisis and hope. Human activity, especially in the species-rich tropics, has gravely reduced the biodiversity of the planet. The slash and burn practices of agriculture has robbed the habitat of approximately 15% of the native species; the remaining 85% are subsisting in increasingly smaller and fragmented reserves; it is also removing our carbon sinks. We have reached a tipping point after which the extinction rate will increase dramatically. To prevent this irreversible loss, we must protect the remaining areas that have not already been destroyed. This will preserve the world’s biodiversity, even while we continue to lose it in urban areas. One positive way of viewing this finding is that as humanity migrates to cities we are moving away from rural habitats. Perhaps that natural shift in population as we flee nature for the gleaming concrete jungles may allow us to preserve the remnant areas; as long as we don’t exploit them to feed and clothe the city-dwellers.

Image Credit: World Wildlife Fund

We Can Achieve Sustainability Together


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There is an underlying challenge to the sustainability movement. How can we get people to care about the environment enough to drive change? As we have seen in the recent US presidential elections, climate change, which impacts everyone on this planet, is not even on the minds of the voting public nor was it discussed by either of the candidates. Governments and businesses are not set up to be environmentally goal-oriented; it is counter to their agendas of growth and development. We need another approach.

James Miller in “Biodiversity Conservation and the Extinction of Experience,” draws our attention to our “collective ignorance that ultimately leads to our collective indifference.” As people migrate into larger and larger cities and sprawling suburbs, they reduce their exposure to natural environments. Our urban lifestyle is predominately lived inside, and children, as well as adults, spend a majority of their lives in front of computers or television instead of spending time outdoors. City dwellers also “encounter biological uniformity in their day-to-day lives,” so we grow accustomed to the lack of biodiversity without even realizing there is a problem. Our children do not develop a relationship with nature, and their children will be further removed. This increasing distance adds up to what ecologist, Robert Pyle, has termed the “extinction of experience”. To cure this, Michael Rosenzweig has called for “reconciliation ecology”, which suggests “a belief that contact with elements of the natural world would contribute to their well-being.”

This point is taken up in “Improving City Life,” (Standish, Hobbs and Miller). Communal gardening “will result in a wide variety of opportunities for city folk to interact with nature,” while potentially increasing biodiversity with native and exotic species planted by the gardeners. “Integrating people’s value systems, cultural traditions and socioeconomic activities into landscape ecology” will make them part of the solution. Developing intentional green spaces within the urban landscape, such as turning “urban wasteland” into more aesthetic—and more likely to be preserved—shared gardens, will not only build communities but increase knowledge and appreciation of ecology. Sweat equity will help people appreciate their effort to preserve and maintain green spaces, along with the flora and fauna that they become responsible for.

Turning to Lester Milbrath’s, “Psychological, Cultural, and Informational Barriers to Sustainability”, he wrote that “polls show a majority, usually a high majority, of people in most countries were aware of environmental problems and very concerned about getting them solved to ensure a decent future… [however] most people were deeply disappointed in the lack of action by their governments on these concerns.” He also detailed the results of a study that showed a high degree of awareness about ecology with students, but a significantly low degree of knowledge. Education may not be the problem, with harried teachers unable to cover the core basics and are lacking in environmental knowledge themselves. The real culprit may be the lack of contact with nature, as Miller suggested.

We, as a society, need to take it upon ourselves to reconnect with nature and build knowledge. As Milbrath pointed out, incremental changes “accumulate exponentially over time, adding up to a major environmental degradation.” We fail to see the daily impact of our consumptive lifestyle on the planet, since it does not change day to day, but over longer stretches of time. However, that same process can be turned around to a positive. If we learn to consume less resources as a society, and increase our exposure to and appreciation of nature that sustains our life, those incremental changes can begin to reverse decades of damage. Each of us is part of that solution. We need to get this message into the minds and hearts of people; it is not about austerity, but about the preservation of the richness of our lives and our long term survival.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Inclusivity and Diversity are Keys to Successful Development


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When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 it brought global attention to the city and its long-standing financial problems. As described in Jonathan Schlefer’s “Plans Versus Politics: New Orleans After Katrina,” funding shortages had impacted the city’s infrastructure, public education system, healthcare and delivery of services. 27% of the city’s residents were living below the poverty line—double the national average—who were disproportionately African American and living along racially segregated topographical lines. The wealthier areas of the city, including the French Quarter, universities and hospitals, were built on a raised crescent with the poor living in the bowl beneath. The aging levee system that should have protected the city had not been maintained due to federal cutbacks, and the flood walls built on top of them were poorly constructed. Additionally the bayou had suffered from decades of environmental damage and no longer provided protection against storm surges. This combination created conditions for one of the worst disasters in American; not just Katrina but the years of aftermath.

Mayor Ray Nagin called upon Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to quickly form a responsible development plan to restore the city. Although both groups attempted to engage the communities to get their ideas it was nearly impossible. Some neighborhoods had been wiped off the map and most of the residents had fled the city, uncertain if they could return. BNOB and ULI moved ahead without their input to draft a practical approach. They saw no reason to rebuild a city that had been broken. Redevelopment would be focused in areas that were raised above sea level—predominately rich and white—while the lower lying areas that remained susceptible to flooding would be put on indefinite hold. When the development plans were revealed to the community they were perceived as racist; there were no plans to help the communities that had faced the worst devastation.  Worse, the city had limited funds available to buy out the people in these areas. Since the community as a whole could not participate in the development decision, it was perceived as biased against segments of the community and interpreted as a plan to keep them from returning to their homes.

Similarly urban centers used to be built for humans, but following the broad-adoption of the automobile, urban plans favored accommodating vehicular traffic. This segregated pedestrians to the margins. Thousands of pedestrians are killed by automobiles every year, accounting for 13% of fatalities. The misguided plan to build cities around cars was raised by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities; removing residents from the streets destroyed the community. Hartman and Prytherch’s essay, “Streets to Live In: Justice, Space, and Sharing the Road”, discussed the problem of streets use in terms of societal justice. They offered an alternative in the shalom street, which allows the street to be shared equally. We have seen a gradual retaking of city streets where cars are removed or restricted in favor of greenways that provide space for pedestrian and bike traffic. These initiatives not only help provide a safer and healthier alternative mode of transportation, they also allow provide people opportunities to engage with one another and build community. These efforts take leadership, community engagement, money, and notably time, to achieve.

Achieving a more inclusive community has benefits. Susan Reed’s, The Diversity Index: The Alarming Truth About Diversity in Corporate American…and What Can Be Done About It, tracked the years of incremental progress to building a more inclusive company. One chapter focused on pharmaceutical giant Merck’s diversity strategy. It started with one CEO, Roy Vagelos, who saw a problem in the lack of diversity in upper management; it was not reflective of the company. He began with not just a token hire, but added a mix of women and minorities at the top to send a message throughout the company. Merck was acknowledged for its efforts by the industry, but within the ranks it was seen as only the first step. Over time the program was expanded through the company by actively engaging the employees, gathering feedback, and providing a safe platform to air concerns.  The big difference with Merck was they actively used this information to make progress toward their inclusive goal and continue to make this a daily, not annual, initiative. This path took time and continuous effort, but they were rewarded in building a more resilient company where people from different background felt included in the company, shared their ideas and experiences. Merck claims that they focus on patients over profits, and they expanded this goal to people over profits. This inclusive strategy can be applied in any organization, including government, urban planning, and our unified approach to sustainability. When people are encouraged to participate they become the solution.

Image Credit: Diversity Index