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A leaked agenda for the United Nations Rio+20 conference places urban sustainability in a major role for UN member nation Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forth for ratification this June. The document acknowledges that cities are on par with nations in terms of implementing and measuring sustainability progress over the next 18 years--the-make-or-break period for mitigating and adapting to global climate change.

The Rio+20 agenda, leaked today in the UK's The Guardian under the Ogilvy Mather promoted slogan "The Future We Want," lays out ten areas for new Sustainable Development Goals that will be released in Rio; urban sustainability is one of the key goals (other nine major categories include climate change, food security, water, green jobs, oceans, natural disasters, forests and biodiversity, mountains, and chemicals and waste).

The Rio+20 draft agenda states: "We recognize the need to integrate sustainable urban development policy as a key component of national sustainable development policy and, in this regard, to empower local authorities....We recognize that partnerships among cities have emerged as a leading force for action on sustainable development. We commit to support international cooperation among local authorities, including through assistance from international organizations."

Officially, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, follow-up to the historic UN 1992 "Earth Summit," also held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is dedicated to marshalling the global Green Economy.

The leaked 19-page agenda calls for major global actions in financing, policy, technology implementation and collaboration in the face of global climate change and economic turmoil, developing-nation poverty and climate-exacerbated natural disasters.

Elaborating on the importance of cities as part of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, the document includes the following recommendations:

  • "We commit to promote an integrated and holistic approach to planning and building sustainable cities through support to local authorities, efficient transportation and communication networks, greener buildings and an efficient human settlements and service delivery system, improved air and water quality, reduced waste, improved disaster preparedness and response, and increased climate resilience."
  • "...members of civil society to be actively engaged in sustainable development by incorporating their specific knowledge and practice know-how into national and local policy making."
  • "...the essential role of local governments and the need to fully integrate them into all levels of decision-making on sustainable development."
  • need for "...a toolbox of good practices in applying green economy policies at regional, national and local levels."
  • "...creation of Centers of Excellence as nodal points for Green technology R&D"
  •  "...call for strengthening of regional and sub-regional mechanism, including the regional commissions, in promoting sustainable development through capacity building."
The Sustainable Development Goals will be obtained through a three-part process over an 18-year period, staring this year with the Rio+20 event:
    • 2012-2015: establishment of indicators
    • 2015-2030: implementation and periodic assessment of progress
    • 2030: comprehensive assessment of progress

On the road to Rio, the UN's "Shanghai Manual for Sustainable Cities" was released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in December as a playbook for mayors of global cities so they can deploy triple bottom line strategies (I co-authored the manual with the UN). Non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders began last fall high-level discussions with the UN and NGOs ICLEI and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, on potential Rio+20 standards for ecocities including the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS).

Out of the 1992 Earth Summit, with 110 heads of state and thousands of non-governmental leaders, emerged pivotal treaties and frameworks for decades to come, including the Kyoto Protocol and Agenda 21. Other products of the first Earth Summit include the Global Environmental Facility at the World Bank, and national sustainability agendas in 86 countries based off Agenda 21, according to Jacob Scherr, director of global strategy and advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Scherr is coordinating a Ford Foundation-sponsored effort called "Sustainable + Just Cities" to make cities a top priority of Rio+20 agreements.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, author of How Green is Your City? and co-author of the UN's Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.

 
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2010 Shanghai Expo Closing Summit

We all need to reinvent urban planning for the 21st century.

Never has the need been greater for integration across urban management, systems, experts, policies and technologies. The world is rapidly becoming more urban, especially in Asia, where hundreds of millions have begun moving to cities. This massive migration, largest in human history, will produce colossal impacts--including innovation--in energy use, transportation, housing, water and resource use. Economies will be impacted at every scale, especially beyond burgeoning metro areas in national and global markets.

Add climate change and adaptation issues to the development of Asian cities, where more than 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emission increases are expected to occur over the next 15 years, and we are faced with the urgency--and opportunity--to reinvent urban planning. Planning for the future of cities needs to now embody a process combining sustainability strategies with information and communications technologies (ICT), supported by the sciences (natural + social) in concert with engaged participation: from the slum to the boardroom to the ivory tower.

Considering such needs, the United Nations is announcing capacity building for sustainable urbanization, with an initial focus on Asia. On Nov. 7, the UN will release its "Shanghai Manual for Sustainable Urbanization" (where else but in China's largest city, Shanghai?). The Shanghai Manual, developed in conjunction with the Shanghai Expo 2010 (photo above), represents not only the knowledge legacy of dozens of symposia held throughout the Expo, but also new research, case studies and policy recommendations targeted for mayors and other urban executive leaders.

The Shanghai Manual and its subsequent planned UN sustainability capacity building for mayors represents a thematic lead-in to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, which will be held June 2012 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Rio+20 marks the anniversary of the historic 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development ("The Earth Summit") and will draw upon the broad themes of The Green Economy and Sustainable Development. In Rio, the UN 193 Member States, along with groups such as business and NGO representatives, will evaluate global progress made and setbacks encountered in achieving sustainable development, and will try to define ways to create a more sustainable future for all.

My contributions as co-author of the Shanghai Manual include chapters on "Delivering Effective Urban Management", "Economic Transformation", and "ICT for Smart Cities". Other chapters are devoted to:

  • Towards a Harmonious City
  • Transport
  • Waste Management
  • Green Buildings
  • Science & Technology
  • Culture and Sustainable Cities
  • Mega Events

Release of the Shanghai Manual will be rapidly followed by training for mayors of 20 cities from 15 Asian nations. Invited to this training are Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Viet Nam: they will meet at the UN Centre For Regional Development in Nagoya, Japan, where I, along with other experts from the UN, will lead instructional sessions in November. The United Nations expects the training in Nagoya will influence:

  •   "Enhanced awareness of participants about feasible and attractive policy options for a green economy for rapidly growing cities of Asia
  •   Increased exchanges between local and national levels of government in the participating countries, thus contributing favorably to the preparation for the (Rio+20) Conference by Member States themselves
  • Enhanced national capacity to identify common challenges and opportunities associated with a green economy and sustainable urban development" (photo by Warren Karlenzig) 
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, and co-author of the forthcoming United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.  
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With Japan's Fukushima, there is an urgent need to re-examine how technology will help address climate change. What societal, economic and other costs will we pay for our technological fixes? In the case of low-carbon energy technologies, Fukushima has radically rearranged the cost-benefit balance sheet.

Next Thursday April 21, research group GigaOm sponsors the Green:Net 2011 event in San Francisco, which will examine how information and communication technology (ICT) can better manage the causes and impacts of climate change.

Despite the environmental costs of ICT, which includes growing energy consumption and mining of dwindling precious metals, ICT is an overall net positive in the battle to mitigate carbon emissions and resource inefficiency. In other words, ICT sustainability gains outweigh ICT life-cycle production, use and disposal (eventually reuse?) costs.

Areas that will likely produce the greatest ICT sustainability improvements include topics that will be covered in depth by Green:Net presentations, panels and sessions, including:

  • Smart Grids: In a new report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that smart grids will be key to rise of clean energy, including renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficiency.
  • Transportation infrastructure and logistics: This can mean getting the latest train, bus or carshare availability information on your handheld, as well as congestion and parking pricing for industries, businesses and residents.
  • Crowdsourcing: I love the story of how Delhi, India is using Facebook to have people report traffic jams, blockages and illegal parking or traffic situations.
  • Smart buildings: Distributed energy control, analytics and energy efficiency systems for offices, commercial buildings, homes and appliances will reduce energy use in the world's largest greenhouse-gas emitting segment--buildings.
  • Smart cities: As urban populations and cities expand worldwide, there are growing needs to use ICT for planning, management, analytics and citizen participation. In New Songdo City, South Korea, which I visited in 2009, ICT is being designed to provide this new city with a unified management system allowing more efficient energy use, lower carbon transportation, and more efficient businesses and residential services.
Companies, VCs and experts appearing at Green:Net include Google, Tesla Motors, Claremont Creek Ventures, Pike Research, Spring Ventures, GE Energy, Silver Spring Networks, RelayRides, ABB Technology Ventures, Otherlab.com, Yahoo, Smart Grid Strategy, Global Green USA, Austin Energy, A123 Systems, Cisco, AES Energy Storage, Autodesk, Microsoft, CC Labs, Control4, CODA Automotive, Joel Makower from GreenBiz Group, Stanford's Annika Todd and Jonathan Silver from the US Department of Energy.

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.   

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Hourly Japan 's tragedy grows almost beyond comprehension (3/16 Update: The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this afternoon that releases of radiation at Fukushima have been "extremely high" and that "could impact the ability to take corrective measures."). There is universal empathy over the pain and suffering being experienced, fear about impacts on Japan's and the world's economy, and anxiety about releases of radiation. For those of us living in seismically active coastal earthquake zones (me), or anyone living in the airshed of an active nuclear facility (most of us), or living downwind (the West Coast of the US and Canada), concerns are multiplied.  

We must use this teachable moment to comprehensively plan for climate change, energy availability and transformational natural disasters. These multi-dimensional factors present non-linear problems bound up together, a "wicked problem."

The urban need for effective resilience planning has never been more urgent or daunting. The Sendai Earthquake shattered existing risk models with a 9.0 initial offshore earthquake, spawning a colossal tsunami from the epicenter toward shore, resulting in a humanitarian crisis underpinned by now-uncontrolled nuclear radiation releases.

Loss of life is rampant, and amongst survivors physical and psychological suffering is acute. 

All grids are down, no transportation, communications or energy are available in impact zones. Yet, the modest bicycle has emerged triumphant from the chaos in Tokyo and beyond

Infrastructure, communications, trains, subways, roads, energy, soil, air, water, and food are all impacted in terms of delivery, quality and supply. People are wisely cloistered indoors, but getting basic supplies will become the next concern for survival even before the radiation leaks subside.

In terms of global economic fallout, supply chains are getting hit, (microcontrollers, airplanes, and the automotive and electronics sectors, impacting global trade at least for the year.

Trend: World supply of renewables are being recalculated and redefined

Nuclear has lost its dubious "renewable" status permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking as an energy source and because its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear as an energy option.


Trend: Need for New Nuclear Power Plant Criteria

Earthquake, and Cat 3 to 5 hurricane and typhoon zones should be taken off the global list of available nuclear energy generation sites. Nuclear needs a complete re-examination in terms of lifecycle energy costs (how much energy is used in mining uranium and other material) as well as lifecycle radiation risks.

Trend: Nuclear won't be Dismissed Outright

Considering the increase in the cities of the developing world (China, India) and their need for energy--it will be almost impossible to dismiss nuclear as an energy source, unless some very massive leapfrog technology comes along. We're stuck with most of the nuclear plants we have, at least for now. Plants should be scrutinized, even temporarily or permanently closed if they can't be run with "Post-Fukushima" confidence. Germany is doing just that to its older nuclear plants. The EU is stress testing more than 100 of its nuclear plants, according to the American Public Media show Marketplace.

France, the world's leading nuclear economy, doesn't get major temblors or tropical storms.  China, on the other hand, has massive fault zones. Southeast China, like the southeast US, also hosts its version of Hurricane Alley in its Pearl River Delta region. China has 13 plants up and running with 20 in planning stages, many in severe typhoon and earthquake risk areas (3/16 Update: China announced it was at least for now suspending the 37 nuclear plants it had in construction or planning stages.)

The challenge for urban planning agencies in the Pacific Rim: cities are more likely to be coastal, putting them at heightened risks for Pacific earthquake zones as well as climate change risks. The rising average ocean levels resulting from melting polar ice caps will only make tsunamis and flood events worse. The West Coast of the US dodged a bullet when the tsunami from Japan hit at low tide: still, California alone had more than $30 million in tsunami damage last week. Sea level rises will exacerbate the damage caused by tsunamis, and will also increase sea water intrusion into drinking water supplies and fresh water ecosystems. About 1.6 million households in Japan were without water as of 3/18.

Distributed Energy, Communications, Transportation and Radiation

Energy: Solar, biogas and fuel cell technologies will gain as they can be used on or near where they generate energy, providing energy supplies even after disasters take down the power grid. Distributed forms of energy require only local transmission lines, which can be repaired quickly. Wind energy relies more on national grid energy transmission networks (though as the most affordable major renewable energy supply, wind demands a share of the energy pie). Because of transmission risks, coal plants will decline, even if "clean coal" is perfected, let alone invented. Electricity supply is spotty from Tokyo north. Tokyo faces six months of brownouts, or reduced power because of the nuclear crisis (nuclear provides the nation with 30% of its total electric power).

Communications: Cellular telephone service in Japan was severely disrupted, not so for land lines and internet communications. The recommendation according to the US Department of State:  "Where possible, you may be able to contact family members using text messages or social media such as Facebook or Twitter." Of course that means email, chat, Skype, Vonage, etc. work in Japan, too.

Mobility: Trains and subways are back up in the Tokyo Metro, after being mostly down for a few days, as they are the lifeblood of urban Japanese life. The northeast region, however, is physically cut off from the urban spine of Tokyo. My Japan sources, Eric and Ken, tell me the regions should be able to be linked with cycling, if the right bikes are used (mountain or cruiser tires). I got around after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 with an old Fisher (pre "Gary"), and was even regularly able to clamber with that bike down a post-earthquake four-foot San Andreas Fault road drop on State Highway One, on cliffs above the Pacific. Though Highway One north was not reopened to cars for over a year, it still provided cyclists safe passage between West Marin-San Francisco.

Radiation: When the French, the planet's reigning nuclear experts, tell their people to flee Tokyo and then the US warships evacuate, you know things are critical. Tuesday nuclear plant overflights for aircraft were banned and, more disturbingly, operators may have been forced by events to abandon nuclear plant control rooms

Besides the immediate risks to health, the big unknown risks jeopardize land, infrastructure and food. How will Japan safely assess radiation levels and then make a go/ no go decision for what's inhabitable or edible? How will that information be conveyed to the international community? Already the US has made multiple requests that Japan release more data on its basic air radiation levels(Update: in the first break of policy with Japan, the US today, 3/16, has set an evacuation zone of 50 miles for US citizens versus a Japanese zone of 12 miles.)

Imagine the complexity of trying to obtain, analyze and effectively communicate radiation levels in soil, water, food and products.

Overall, Japan has remained stoic, calm, and orderly for which its leaders and people should be greatly commended. There have been no reports of looting or price gouging. Now may we all breathe carefully, take stock of the lessons that emerge, and plan for a world of new forces and constraints.

We should take heed from Japan. Its situation at present may seem unbelievably hellish, but it could demonstrate for the world how to face not only natural disasters that rightfully grab headlines, but also how to deal with the forces that will always lurk in the background: climate change and energy supply volatility.

Image: Associated Press via The CityFix

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.     

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Between 2000 and 2030 the global urban footprint will double, mostly due to growth in developing nation cities. Urban carbon and resource impacts cannot, must not double during this period. What can be done by policymakers, the private sector, civil society and urban leaders to prevent the unthinkable, a global climate and ecosystem incapable of supporting stable species populations and food production?

A botched transition to the coming urban future will ensure stresses far beyond our comprehension.

So, I will be addressing the Global Green Cities Symposium in San Francisco Feb. 24 on "Enabling Future Global Green Cities." In my previous post I described how this event acknowledges a sense of urgency by taking a novel approach to expert and cross-industry collaboration.

Clearly, cities in developing nations are the crux of the matter: 90% of projected urban growth will occur in developing nation metros during the next decades. By 2040, the developing nation urban sector will benefit from an estimated total of more than $300 trillion in expenditures for the built environment and transportation, both in infrastructure and operations. Increasingly these city functions and services will be optimized to address both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

Before getting to the how, let's address the issue of cities on the basic level of benefits and risks.

Pros of increased urbanism:

  • easier provision of lower-cost high-value services (healthcare, education, water, transportation, communications, commerce)
  • enhanced cultural activities and opportunities
  • urban economic innovation in global hubs benefit their surrounding rural regions, and especially national economies

Cons of increased urbanism:

  • increased pollution and concentration of wastes, congestion, urban-heat island effect
  • negative social impacts which can include loss of sense of community, isolation from nature and decreased safety and security, exacerbated by a large-scale lack of affordable housing
  • sprawled urban borders place natural resources (agricultural land, habitat, fisheries, watersheds) at much greater risk

Beyond the pros and cons of urbanization, the populations and economies of all cities are vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts of global climate change, including rising sea levels, flooding, winter storms, drought and extreme heat events. Besides higher rates of death and disease from climate change-induced environmental conditions, mass population migrations are expected to occur in the not-distant future. From New Orleans to Bangladesh, urban climate-related population diasporas have already begun.

Cities will need to quickly begin shifting their spending from high-carbon intensity infrastructure to green infrastructure that produces very low carbon emissions in production, transport, implementation and maintenance.

Long-term and strategic action plans will be necessary to guide capital toward infrastructure solutions offering attractive returns on investment. Such returns can take many forms--reduced operating costs (including reuse and disposal), low embodied and operating carbon emissions, lower air and water pollution levels, and greater resource efficiency.

Global competitiveness may soon be defined in part by comparative carbon emission rates. Low-carbon urban economies, for instance, will gain a decisive edge over economies (urban, exurban or rural) that remain relatively heavy per-capita carbon emitters. This competitive advantage will be gained not only because of environmental and quality of life factors but also because of the potential merger of international trade rules and carbon emissions regulations.

The OECD Mayors Roundtable in 2010 recommended that urban policy makers pursue integrated policy in three areas: the adjustment of firms to new sustainability related business opportunities and energy volatility; enabling individual consumers or citizens to change their preferences for products and services, and, finally; developing and effectively diffusing green technologies in the marketplace.

Following are other leading strategies and recommendations that will be covered in the United Nations "Shanghai Training Manual for Sustainable Cities".  (In order to be more likely to succeed, multi-sector collaboration and transparency will be required of each):

  •  New integrated, long-term and multi-scale models for structuring, managing, measuring and financing city performance (e.g., World Bank Eco2 Cities program) including life-cycle energy/ carbon, maintenance and capital cost management across budgets, capital planning and large-scale investments. Early examples include Curitiba, Brazil, and a Stockholm industrial district.
  • Mega-region and regional planning approaches, including those with "cascaded" micro-planning, such as Greater London (pdf).
  • Community-based natural disaster management, such as the Dhaka example (pdf)
  • Core ICT Planning and Strategy: With e-planning ICT can help cities avoid high-carbon land use. Digital technology makes it possible for cities to achieve lower carbon emissions from better planning and management of infrastructure, buildings, energy and transportation. ICT can provide valuable public access in communications and governance, such as Mumbai's e-government platform.
  • Public-private partnerships that are well constructed. Early examples include South Korea's Smart Grid 2030, and China's Guangdong Province wastewater projects. Public-private partnership agreements should be part of a transparent public process that is beneficial to all parties, especially citizens.
  • "In situ" slum upgrading, versus indiscriminately tearing down slums. Vulnerabilities must be addressed for those slums that are located in areas particularly at risk to climate change, such as flood plains and land subject to severe storm erosion. The good news, however, is that most urban slums are high density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, made from recycled material, adaptive to changing conditions and can be socially inclusive with strong neighborhood social networks.

Green urbanization has the potential to shape the 21st century as much or more than earlier economic and technological advances. The key difference between this trend and prior economic waves--transportation, communications, energy, advanced materials and industrialization--will be the use of integrated urban system approaches.

Bonafide global green cities will only be fully realized through combined cultural, managerial and technological innovation that is constantly guided by the active participation of the civil and private sectors, academia and government.

Let's all get busy...

("World Metro Map" image credit)

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.  


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From Singapore's high tech congestion management system to New York's PlaNYC 2030 to Yokohama's zero-carbon emissions goal, the future greening of cities is becoming our global "Plan A" for survival--economic and species--and will be the topic of the "Global Green Cities" conference in San Francisco, Feb. 23-25. The invitation-only event will mash up top planners, designers, strategists, technologists, mayors and financiers on how design, technology and behavior can facilitate the cross-fertilization of critical ideas and perspectives.

By now most have heard that cities will be the century's Rosetta Stone to mitigating the resource depletion and carbon emissions of humanity. China alone will add 400-700 million people to its cities by 2050. Developing nation urban growth is set to double by 2030 the urban footprint that existed way back in 2000.

If you are old enough to read these words, you will be living in a whole new world than the one in which you grew up.

The global cities of 2030 will be created with ten times the speed it took to cobble together the global cities of 2000, which has acute sustainability implications. That's why international organizations ranging from the United Nations to Natural Resources Defense Council are feverishly creating strategic plans and training for green city innovation including energy supply and energy efficiency, land use and planning, green building, water supply and use, food supply and production, green infrastructure, and enabling information and communications technologies.

The financial sector is well aware that 90 percent of urban economic growth will come in developing nations, so the leaders of The World Bank, the IMF and private banks and investment firms are scrambling to integrate financing in a dizzying array of new life-cycle costing instruments, revenue sharing agreements and public-private partnerships.

Consider Guangzhou's new bus rapid transit system (photo above, Karl Fjelstrom), now the largest in Asia, or Mexico City's Metrobus system. Both were supported by private foundations, while Mexico City's Metrobus also garnered support from an international and Mexican non-governmental organization. Green economic innovation is not just occurring in developing nation cities. San Francisco was able to achieve a leadership role in solar energy projects through a voter-supported bond measure, while Berkeley created its groundbreaking residential PV solar financing program through a mortgage-like approach that cuts costs and financial risks for homeowners.

Global Green Cities will host breakout sessions on the:

  • design of livable, compact, transit oriented cities;
  • technologies of digital, efficient and low-carbon urban systems;
  • behaviors and lifestyles of the urbanite

A "Breakout Synthesis" will focus on how planning, technology and behavior can provide a specific vision for the future.

In a wrap-up discussion of the Global Green Cities plenary session, I will address the issue "Enabling the Green City of the Future," which will look at best practices and driving change in finance, policy and business. On Friday Feb. 25, the conference goes off-site to study planning for sea level rises caused by climate change. It will also analyze California's planning for its landmark state climate change bill of 2006, AB 32, and its companion, SB 375, a historic land use planning law trying to prevent further exurban sprawl while enabling denser, transit-oriented development in existing communities. 

Here's a preview of who will address the invitation-only gathering of "Global Green Cities," which is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, Cisco, AT&T and the Bay Area Economic Institute and is advised by the London School of Economics:

Top confirmed speakers include Bruce Katz, of the Brookings Institute's Metropolitan Policy Program  (recent Time magazine essay and video); Peter Calthorpe--he created the term "transit-oriented development"--of Calthorpe Associates; Khoo Teng Chye of the Singapore Public Utilities Board; Kent Larsen, of MIT's Smart Cities Changing Places Research Group; Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu, of Shanghai'sTongji University College of Architect and Planning; James Sweeney, Director of Stanford University's Precourt Energy Efficiency Center; Jeffrey Heller of Heller-Manus Architects; John Kriken of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Incheon, South Korea Mayor Young-gil Song; San Jose, USA Mayor Check Reed and Dmitri Zenghelis, of the London School of Economics.

Many others are invited, and I will provide another post reviewing this seminal symposium.

One last sober observation. By all appearances, there appears to be no "Plan B."

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.  

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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.  



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About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); the 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 sustainability policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years. Read more here.

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