December 2010 Archives

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Time for my list of the year's top stories about sustainability news in government, business and beyond. Notice the irrelevance of the United States in positive developments.

1. China goes big time green with new Five Year Plan

You may know that China has overtaken the US, EU nations and other countries in production of solar and wind renewable energy technologies; but may not have heard that China,  which will use 15% renewables by 2020, is committed to greening far more than its energy (note: the US has no goal for renewable energy).

China's Five Year Plan for 2011-2015 demonstrates that it is serious about tackling its rampant air and water pollution. This recently announced plan also shows that China will be designing scaleable new technologies and approaches for everything from greener urban development to more fuel efficient vehicles, including nationally subsidized electric cars. 

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a six-month affair that I attended at its close in October (see photo above). Climate change, sustainability, environmental management and the role of citizens in reducing their impact were major themes in the China Pavilion and in other theme pavilions. The Shanghai Expo featured some of the most creative and engaging exhibits that I have seen on climate change, green technology, waste reduction, urban planning, and air and water pollution.

2. India's GDP will factor in environmental damages by 2015

Now that more than 30 nations have agreed to some kind of price on carbon emissions, India declared in November that it will go a step further. India said within five years it will factor in environmental damages into its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In other words, if the country now has an annual GDP of 8 percent that could be adjusted a few percentages points lower once the damages to air, water and species are analyzed and calculated in the equation. Under such "full-cost accounting," intensified green economic development would likely become a substantially larger component of the GDP. 

3. US Congress fails to pass climate change legislation
(again)

Climate change legislation in 2010 appeared to be dead in the water after passing in the U.S. House in 2009. The Obama Administration is likely to try to enforce greenhouse gas emission reductions using Executive Order, mainly through the Environmental Protection Agency. Lawmakers hunker waiting in revolt.

4. It's happening: Climate change related flooding in Pakistan, fires engulfing Russia, etc.

Pakistan experienced some of the worst rain and flooding in its recorded history, with the Indus River flooding its banks and occupying more than 30 times its usual width, which covered one-fifth of the country. Russia in 2010 experienced record high temperatures and rampant drought and extreme temperature-related fires, impacting national food crops, health in major cities including Moscow, and commercial aviation. More than 15,000 were likely killed by the Russian 2010 heat wave, cutting more than $15 billion from its GDP. The year 2010, meanwhile, is likely to finish as the planet's warmest year ever recorded since record keeping began in the late 1800s.

5. Gulf Oil Spill demonstrates future dangers of ever-riskier drilling

The BP Gulf Horizon disaster, the largest US oil "spill" in history (it was more of an uncontrolled gusher than a spill), caught BP, the federal government and the nation at large way off guard. I blogged about the disaster's potential in April, when estimates of damage were laughingly underplayed by BP through the US government. Who can forget the weird summer with that underwater camera video spewing daily before our eyes? Deep water drilling is not for the timid, especially as such operations will more frequently encounter highly volatile methane gases

6. New electric vehicles released by Chevy and Nissan


Both Chevy and Nissan came out in 2010 with electric cars (though only Nissan's Leaf is truly an all-electric car.) Now we just have to figure out how to get people to realize that electric cars are a small sliver of a solution. They're not even part of a solution if people end up feeling justified in driving more and continuing the auto-dominant lifestyle that presents so many other challenges: exurban sprawl; life-cycle energy; peaking oil (see #7) for plastics, asphalt and lubrication; waste and resource impacts; biodiversity and agricultural land destruction; personal health and community societal damages.

7. Oil prices near $100 a barrel. Again.

Oil prices per barrel reached over $91 late this month. The last time oil was at such a price in 2008, the Great Recession was just beginning to wrap its talons around the globe. Now industry analysts see oil prices moving to $100-120 per barrel in 2011. Others, including the US Department of Defense and a UK energy and aviation industry consortium have forecast that the real oil crunch will come in 2014-2015 as global supplies "peak," "plateau," "top off," or "poop out," depending on who you are reading or talking to. The International Energy Agency even came out with a report in 2010 stating that global oil supplies peaked in 2006. Expect much higher prices for gasoline and higher prices for food and transportation (especially airline flights).  

8. Post Carbon Reader lays out a plan for what's next

The Post Carbon Institute tapped 29 of its fellows, including yours truly, to write chapters about the major climate, ecological and economic problems faced by the world in 2010. Chapters covered the inter-related challenges of climate change, resource and water scarcity, dwindling "easy" energy supplies, food security, waste, biodiversity, buildings, "growth" economics, cities and local government, exurban sprawl, human health and psychology, education, societal resilience, population and transportation.

Unlike other books that may be easily filed under "Gloom and Doom," authors in the Post Carbon Reader including Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Erika Allen, David Orr, Stephanie Mills, Wes Jackson, and Sandra Postel made sure to explore positive paths laden with solution examples.

As Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (and founder of the Worldwatch Institute) put it, "The Post Carbon Reader is an invaluable primer, resource and textbook. This is what you need to know, period."  Since its release eight weeks ago, the book is in its second printing from Watershed Media/ University of California Press.

9. Cancun Accord a small step forward

At the Cancun, Mexico, United Nations conference on climate change, representatives from 192 countries pledged to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change with a $100 billion fund announced for 2020. The United Nations and host country Mexico emerged as successful in bringing together the negotiations. Unlike the Copenhagen gathering, Cancun did not attract heads of state. But maybe that's precisely why it was considered more successful than Copenhagen's climate conference.

10. ICLEI announces STAR pilot sustainability program for communities

ICLEI USA, part of an international organization that works with cities and counties on sustainability programs, announced in November a 2012 pilot program called the STAR Community Index. The membership local government advocacy organization, which had promoted its STAR Index since 2007-2008 as coming out in 2010, did release 81 sustainability goals and 10 guiding principles for STAR.

ICLEI has made it clear that STAR is a sustainability rating system for communities, not a ranking system. Its delay for releasing the STAR rating system, which it sees as a US Green Building Council LEED-like rating for communities (USGBC is a partner for STAR, along with the National League of Cities and the Center for American Progress), has been attributed to management volatility as well as the incredibly ambitious scope of STAR.

In addition to ranking green buildings, infrastructure and other environmental, quality of life and energy attributes, ICLEI plans on using STAR to measure and rate city or community "poverty prevention and alleviation," "social cohesion," "government transparency,"  "industry sector development and revitalization," "employment opportunity," "financial literacy," "arts and culture" and dozens of other categories.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.  



3.

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To get a better view of what was happening at the local level in terms of China's new national low carbon and ecological planning, I recently traveled to Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province. Jiaxing (above--click on photos for full size) is a "small town" of about four million that is now only 21 minutes (80 kilometers) from metro Shanghai on a new high-speed electric train line, the fastest in the world--the line, which will eventually extend to Beijing, recently set a test record of 259 miles per hour.

I was traveling with other strategic advisers from the Institute for Strategic Resilience, Irv Beiman and Daniel Zhu. Jiaxing is Zhu's hometown, and he helped arrange our two-day visit.

Jiaxing sees itself as a "Garden City" (with more than 40 percent forest cover), and truly it felt that way thanks to extensive landscaping and forests planted on the site of former rice fields. Jiaxing is also billing itself as the "Oriental Silicon Valley," which embodies China's plans to transform its economy, particularly in eastern coastal areas such as the Yangtze Delta, from manufacturing to service industries, such as IT and green technologies, to supplant its product-export-dominated industrial base.

Jiaxing is the home of the first official Communist Party of China meeting. It occurred in 1921, with Mao Zedong and a few others from Shanghai on a boat playing Mahjong for cover out in the middle of the city's South Lake.

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South Lake and a replica of the famed boat (above) have long been the site of pilgrimages from Chinese citizens, which may account for the town's relative superior level of historic and cultural preservation.

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South Lake still hosts traditional fisherpeople who rhythmically clap boards on the gunwales of their sampans in order to scare fish into awaiting nets.

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Jiaxing has been engaged in careful restoration and reuse of its city center's large 500+ year-old historic district (above). Starting with the canal that encircles its ancient district, the city is attempting to restore the ecology of its deltaic landscape and waterways through applied research of the Yangtze Delta Research Center of Tsinghua University, which is also located in the city. Jiaxing was a north-south node on the great Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, parts of which date back to 2,500 years, the longest engineered water body worldwide.

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In Jiaxing City Hall, a five-story building passively daylighted with great artistry (above) and surrounded by acres of naturally looking forest planted eight years ago, we met with officials. City leadership included the mayor and representatives from the National Development Reform Commission, or NDRC, to which the mayor reports. They explained how the city wants to improve its environmental management and clean industry attraction.

They read us the new goals being dictated from the draft 12th Five Year Plan for 2011-2015, including how they will need to reduce carbon emissions and decrease fossil fuel use, SO2, CO2 (and other more toxic emissions), water pollutants (measured primarily through chemical oxygen demand levels, or COD) and acid rain, while maintaining or restoring forests. While the United States regulates about 1,200 chemicals or pollutants, China currently only regulates about 200.

Water quality is a key national initiative, especially in the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas. Poor water quality--at the Fourth World Forum on China Studies that I also presented at, Zhu spoke of water quality in some regional lakes as being 2,000 times over national standards for heavy metals--has been impacting not only the industry and residents, but also is degrading the estuarine fisheries of the East and South China Sea. The NDRC party official told us that the city's water quality in its canals is a "three or four" on a seven-point scale, with one being the best. The water in the canals did not stink, but it was an opaque dark brown indicating possible overload of fertilizers and other organic material.

We toured a new Science and Industry research center, which had a display on green chemistry. We also visited a state-of-the-art "living machine" type wetland of dozens of acres that the city designed to biologically clean its drinking water while providing open space for recreation. Water fowl and numerous plants species were abundant in the wetland.

Near the ancient city center, an intact island city of 500 years old, university-sponsored researchers were using an experimental technology to oxygenate the organic material-laden canals (from rice and other fertilizers) that flowed around town from the nearby Yangzte River.

Officials told us that Jiaxing is the first city in China as part of national pilot project to reduce SO2 emissions using a market-based emissions reduction program. At the city's pollution exchange center, an official explained how the price of $20,000 Renminbi ($3,000 US) was assessed per ton on SO2 for the next 20 years for existing industries. Industries or operations that produce too much air pollution are being discouraged from locating in the city by much greater emissions fees, three or four times more, that would apply to them.

Highly polluting and energy-intensive plants are being shut down around Jiaxing and throughout the nation, in China's east coast in particular. And true to the goals of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, Jiaxing, instead of pursuing more primary or secondary manufacturing, the "Oriental Silicon Valley" (there has to be a better way to translate that nickname!) is vying for software, telecommunications and service industries.

Though Jiaxing is making strides as a center of research and applied research for environmental management and low-carbon approaches and technologies, its new green evolution is not without hurdles.

Like many local and regional governments, the city and the Zhejiang Province, have been struggling to meet the energy efficiency mandates of the national 11th Five Year Plan that officially that ends December 31. In order to achieve the goals of the 11th Five Year Plan for energy-use reduction, rolling blackouts were occurring throughout the area, forcing industry to use dirtier diesel generators for electricity, which contributed to local air pollution as well as shortages of diesel gasoline used by trucks.

As Jiaxing illustrates, no one expects China's new greener path to be easy or without conflicts. The implications for this new direction, however, augers well on a number of fronts. China's new National 12th Five Year Plan should be a boon for greater technological innovation, greener economic growth and greater attention to global (climate change) and national environmental degradation, as well as international cooperation.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.  





 

About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren
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 Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

November 2010 is the previous archive.

January 2011 is the next archive.

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