Top Ten Sustainability Stories of the Decade

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It's the end of the decade 2000-2009, and there has been progress as well as potential disaster for sustainability. In chronological order, I've chosen these ten stories to show a range of relevant global and national issues and events on climate, business, government, media, design, technology, language and demographics. Some of the entries are pegged to an exact date, while others cover a time period.

The first entry, climate change is impacting all aspects of sustainability thought, planning and action.

1.       Terror of the Decade: Global Climate Change Confirmed by...Climate, IPCC, Heads of State

Time Period: 2000-2009



The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that we humans are changing the earth's climate in ways in which millions are beginning to regret. Ten of the hottest years on record globally have been recorded in the ten years since 1997. Some of the impacts: rising overall sea levels from melting polar ice are already damaging low-lying areas in Bangladesh, India, Egypt and China, and threatening the very existence of island nations. More intense hurricanes (Katrina killed more than 1,300 in 2006 and helped shut down the oil and gas refining sector in the Gulf Coast); droughts, heat (the Europe heat event of 2003 caused more than 35,000 deaths) and wildfires (Australia's Melbourne-area deadly firestorm of 2009 exploded during one of the hottest periods ever recorded Down under, dramatizing the ravishes of an ongoing 8-year drought).

So what if these are chance events, unrelated to man's impact on the globe's climate? That's a fair question and an outside possibility, but odds are that these extreme events were at least partially due to the rising global concentration of CO2, which is now at about 390 parts per million (ppm), up from 315 ppm in the late 1950s. The real threat is that things will get much worse (heat waves, droughts, floods, depletion of glaciers and water supplies, agriculture and fisheries disruption) if our global greenhouse gases continue to increase. Human-based greenhouse gas emissions increased 70% between 1970 and 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, also known as the IPCC). The watershed IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007 developed by 2,500 of the world's leading climate scientists, put the likelihood at more than 90 percent that the global temperature increase of .74 Celsius between 1906 and 2005 has been caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. How often have 2,500 scientists agreed on anything? The landmark 2007 "Stern Review on the Economic of Climate Change," by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, estimates that global climate change could negatively impact the world economy annually at 5-20 percent Gross Domestic Product, while Stern estimated that the annual costs of reducing the risks of global climate change are estimated to be about 1 percent of world GDP.

Unfortunately, the UN COP-15 conference in Copenhagen ended with a whimper, producing only a non-binding agreement to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrialized temperature levels. Follow-up actions, including a potential binding treaty, will set the agenda for the next decade and beyond.  

2.       Word: Sustainability

Time Period: 2000-2009


The use of the term "sustainability" itself has been a major surprise this past decade. In 2000, only a few policy wonks and academics used the word, traditionally defined as "meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." Now the public (maybe even more than the media) is gleaning that "sustainability" differs considerably from "environmentalism" as it is based on planning for an uncertain future based on economics, culture, resources and technology.

As the current decade closes many are searching for a term that could replace "sustainability," claimed to be almost meaningless now because it has been hijacked by greenwashing corporate marketing campaigns (I bet some such ads pop up next to this post somewhere in future digital ether!). "Resilience" is currently gaining  traction, but we'll perhaps need another decade to see if the "s-word" gets dethroned.

3.       Standards: LEED Green Buildings

Date: March 2000



The US Green Building Council formally released its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design building standards (LEED) full Green Building Rating system 2.0 in March 2000. The impact on the nation's building and construction industry over the next ten years has been wildly popular and transformational on numerous levels. The number of LEED-certified or registered buildings increased from 10,000 in 2007 to 20,000 by the beginning of 2009. Providing a system-based measurable standard of what "green" means is useful for policy, benchmarking and new market development. The LEED ratings, for instance,  were integral to my ability to develop an overall sustainability benchmarking of US cities starting in 2005 (which can found in my book How Green is Your City?). Critics have assailed LEED for providing standards in certification that do not reflect actual performance in energy efficiency. Nevertheless, LEED standards, are now being positioned for international markets (in competition with Europe's BREE-AM and China's emerging Three Star standard), and they continue to be a powerful teaching tool, not to mention an industry onto themselves. Today's savvy urban planner, construction manager or architect must possess the LEED-AP, "Accredited Professional" tagline on their business card. In addition to new commercial building construction, LEED is now being applied to homes, existing buildings, schools, neighborhoods and may even extend to cities, under the LEED for Neighborhood Development standard that was launched in 2009.

The next challenges for green building standards will be rating life-cycle impacts (carbon, water, scarce resources) of construction processes and material, while integrating measures of building performance--how much buildings actually save energy or water once they are occupied.

4.       Product: The Toyota Prius

Date: July 2000


Back in the 1990s, Toyota Motor Corporation CEO Katsuaki Watanbe helped birth the "G-21," later known as the Prius, when he decided that middle-class consumers wanted a car that used new motor innovations to be fuel-efficient. The Prius hybrid gas-electric car was introduced in the United States in July 2000. It quickly became a Hollywood status symbol after Leonardo DiCaprio bought one in 2001, and he and other stars such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart (remember her?) began showing up at the 2003 Oscar ceremonies not in chauffeured limos, but behind the wheel or driven in their own Priuses. By the decade's peak sales year of 2007, the Toyota Prius had sold 180,000 units in the United States. These cars get 40-50 miles per gallon but perhaps even more importantly provide a meter showing real-time and historic fuel efficiency; self-monitoring feedback is one of the greatest ways of changing behavior to reduce energy use.

Plug-in electric models of the Prius will begin to be released on  test basis in 2010, in a challenge to the introduction of GM's Chevy Volt. Plug-ins may create fuel efficiencies that can truly reduce carbon emissions and oil dependency, getting from 51 to 100+ miles per gallon. One problem with electric cars or plug-in hybrid electrics is that their true sustainability impact depends on exactly how the electricity they use is produced at the power plant: renewables or dirty coal? In parts of the United States that continue to burn large amounts of coal to generate electricity (Southeast, lower Midwest and Plains states), driving an electric car does little or nothing to reduce a person's overall carbon footprint when compared to gas-burning cars. When you consider cars and health, social, land use and material life-cycle impacts, driving less is better for people's fitness, the environment and the planet.

5.       Corporate Story. Wal-Mart Embarks on a "Green" Path

Time Period: 2004-2005



I must admit, I was a skeptic when I first heard of Wal-Mart's plan to go green in 2004 from Jib Ellison, founder of Blue Skye Consulting, one of the major collaborative forces behind Wal-Mart's transformation. Wal-Mart, at that point the largest company in the world (it's now number 3), had been known for its ruthless management style, questionable labor practices, and for helping put locally owned stores in towns across the country out of business. Ellison had met with Wal-Mart's then-CEO Lee Scott at the behest of Conservation International's CEO Peter Seligman, and Scott decided upon a serious campaign to make the company more resource and energy efficient. Since that meeting, the company has been streamlining its transportation fleet, buildings and some products to be less environmentally destructive. The company is now targeting its supply chain, which is primarily in China, in a loosely defined, greening protocol.

The impact of Wal-Mart going green helped awaken the nation's business leaders to the potential of making their own operations and supply chains energy and resource efficient, (just sounds like good business to me). Wal-Mart announced earlier in 2009 that it would require manufacturers to calculate and disclose the full environmental costs of ingredients and processes on product labels sometime in the next five years. Suppliers, formerly isolated or little regulated, are now assessing their operations in a way they never would have without the threat of greater scrutiny from their biggest customer.

6.       Regulations: California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32)

Time Period: 2005-2006



When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made the declaration in June 2005 that, "I say the debate is over (on climate change),"  many were still heatedly arguing that climate change needed more studies before action was taken. The Governor and the California Legislature pressed ahead in 2006 to sign the nation's first major climate change mitigation legislation, known as AB 32 . Now AB 32 will soon be implemented across industries and even in local communities through follow-up legislation such as the regulation known as SB 375, the nation's first statewide regulatory attempt to limit suburban and exurban sprawl. Meanwhile, opponents of AB 32, are gearing up for 2010 gubernatorial elections, claiming AB 32 will cost the state $143 billion in auction taxes alone. Whatever happens next, California is being looked on by the Obama Administration and world leaders as the pace setter in climate change mitigation with its aggressive automotive fuel standards, green building standards and AB 32's goal of reducing greenhouse gases 80% over 1990 levels by 2050.

7.       Film: An Inconvenient Truth

Date: May, 2006


Released in Summer 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, An Inconvenient Truth made the debate on climate change public. The documentary, which was actually just a series of lectures and slideshows that former Vice President Al Gore was giving around the world, hit a nerve. Despite "action scenes" that consisted of Gore either 1.) riding up elevators or 2.) riding down escalators, the film created a major public buzz and introduced the subject of climate change to popular culture. An Inconvenient Truth received an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Documentary and went on to set records for box office revenues in its category. An Inconvenient Truth offered very few solutions, suggesting compact fluorescent bulbs and little more. This critical learning opportunity was finally addressed when Gore released a follow-up book in 2009, A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.

8.       Book: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Date: May, 2006



Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma made clear the benefits of sustainable agriculture and food production, and even foraging or killing your own food: it's healthier for people, animals, farmers, the land and nature. The ongoing popularity of this book has helped create a demand for sustainably raised food that has out-paced supply. The Omnivore's Dilemma patiently outlined what is wrong with industrial agriculture and livestock production, where highly subsidized ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup have become a surplus commodity to be forced upon products or animals in order to reduce the price of ingredients, without regard to health (diabetes, reduced nutrition). I had the good fortune of meeting Angelo Garro, the Italian forager, now based in Northern California who was profiled in the last half of the book. As we traded notes on wild huckleberry picking one afternoon at a friend's orchard party, he was pulling off some strips of meat from a boiled carcass. When the sun went down most were unknowingly eating a jack rabbit that Angelo had shot in the orchard a few hours before--it had made its way into a delicious bolognese pasta sauce.

9.       Design: Masdar City, First Planned Net-Zero Carbon City

Time Period: 2006-2017



Masdar will be a 50,000-person city based on applied sustainability research and technology that is being developed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. While other cities have been planned to be net-zero carbon (Dongtan, China, which is not being developed because of local corruption and other issues), Masdar has been one of the few net-zeros that appear to be proceeding as planned. With financial partners Credit Suisse, Siemens and General Electric, Masdar is also backed by the city-state of Abu Dhabi, as well as technology partners from the UK and Spain. The complex is being used for cutting-edge research in: renewable energy (including dozens of active and passive solar and wind technologies), water conservation technologies that can distill drinking water from ambient moisture both indoors (sweat) and outdoors (dew), as well as local urban food production schemes. In fall 2009, the Masdar Institute of Technology opened, in conjunction with MIT, where students get degrees in engineering,  material sciences, IT, water and the environment, all with a relationship to the real world demonstration projects taking root in the city that in Arabic means "the source."


10.   Future Trend: Mega-growth of Unregulated Asian Cities + Mega Drought

Time Period: 2009-2030

Between now and 2027 Asian Cities will account for more than half of the world's greenhouse gas increases, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank. From Mumbai to Beijing, cities will add a projected 1.8 billion people over the next two decades; they are almost entirely unregulated in their growth, carbon management and environmental impacts, despite some new siloed attempts to manage their industries, power production and energy efficiency. The daunting challenge is that no regulatory structure exists to monitor this collection of Asian mega-cities, despite the fact that many of these cities has or will have populations of 10-20 million individuals. This megagrowth began around the beginning of the 00's, when Asian urban population was at 1.4 billion. Asia is projected to have about 3 billion urbanites by 2030.

Water is the first epic Asian city resource crisis. The Tibetan Plateau, source of most of the region's major sources of fresh water (including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges, Irrawaddy and the Indus rivers) has been experiencing a seven percent loss of glaciers on an annual basis, according to a report released last week (pdf) at the Copenhagen climate conference. 

Beijing has been hit especially hard by a ten-year drought (pdf): the city of 17 million has enough water for only 14 million. Beijing has been forced to procure water from surrounding agricultural regions and rapidly diminishing groundwater, while some cities in India have completely run out of water during periods of drought over the past decade.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute


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The Ten items of the decade.....this is a joke,isn't it? I mean Walmart whose raison d'etre is the global mobility of capital thanks to low transport energy costs in pursuit of the cheapest labor. The prime obstacle to health care reform (which would dramatically reduce energy consumption) and reestablishment of the right of workers to organize unions?

Abu Dhabi, in a climate that humans shouldn't really spend much time, using oil money to promote high tech development with a life time energy consumption that's off the charts, even if at some point operating energy input approaches zero?

California, the poster child for conspicuous consumption and bubble economics?

Maybe I should throw away the computer for my own peace of mind instead of torturing myself reading self-deceptions propagated as cures for our self-inflicted wounds.

Thanks for the information but I don't think that these are the Top ten sustainability stories.By the ways thanks for this informative article.

Portable Storage,

I don't think anyone is going to have the exact same top 10 list for the last decade's sustainability events. However, I believe you hit a few of them. When most people think about sustainability and climate change over the last ten years, I'm pretty sure they will think of Al Gore's documentary, natural disasters, the Prius, and LEED. Let's not act like those weren't big deals.

These are more like the top sustainability stories of the last 5 years. As for Jerry Silberman's comment above, Business and Corporations are the only people that will seriously make a difference. Especially in the US, people will never give up their obsession with material items. Our only hope is to 1) fill that demand and obsession as efficiently as possible and 2) to recycle as much of that obsession as possible. So in my mind, Walmart's commitment to sustainability is the biggest story of the decade!

Thanks for this informative take on the top ten sustainability stories -- like all "top lists," yours appears to be controversial!

I will be very interested to see what happens with the word 'resilience' over the next decade. I agree with you that it may be in line to replace sustainability. However, that may be unfortunate, because as much as I am a proponent of resilience, the two words do not really mean the same thing. If only we could find a way to take back sustainability from the greenwashers...

Masdar City is going to be amazing. Cant wait to visit it once it done.

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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Warren Karlenzig published on December 20, 2009 6:52 PM.

Copenhagen Ends with Tepid Goals: 2 degree C increase; US to cut CO2 14-17% by 2020 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Next Decade's Top Sustainability Trends is the next entry in this blog.

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