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I've returned from a sobering United Nations-led tour of six tsunami-damaged communities and two radiation-impacted cities in Northern Japan. The obvious conclusion: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is forcing Japan to go green, including the launch of a new renewable energy national feed-in tariff that starts in July. Meanwhile the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, told us that renewables will be the "key factor" in the revival of his devastated prefecture.

Though little planning is in evidence yet as to how this economic and energy transformation will be integrated, our UN tour did witness fragmented signs that Japan can provide a developed-nation resilience role model in the face of cultural, energy system and environmental devastation.

Organized by the Nagoya, Japan-based UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), we traveled for a week as part of a fact-finding mission with UNCRD director Chikako Takase and her staff. The mission was called "Reconstruction Towards Sustainable Communities" and my role was to advise Japanese community leaders on green economic development recovery strategies and opportunities. I had met with a range of clean tech energy companies and urban planning and design firms in preparation, as well as the US Department of Commerce.

I was joined by experts from five countries, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US. One fellow American represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seems our contingent was somewhat of a novelty. I was told by the UN and the US Embassy in Tokyo that we were one of the first (if not the first) from outside the three affected prefectures to meet with local leaders on reconstruction and post-disaster management planning.

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UN reconstruction tour group of Japan disaster areas, in Ishinomaki (photos Warren Karlenzig)

The tsunami-scoured coastal cities where some 20,000 died--bodies are still being discovered by white ships trolling the coast and on land by locals--are focused on the future of survivors. We visited temporary housing and just-opened temporary retail developments. These modular constructed units, complete with personal flairs such as lanterns, public benches and landscaping, house locally-owned shops from bars to barbers to fish mongers that were wiped out by the tsunami.


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Ofunato City temporary retail center

With 300,000 in the region driven from their homes by the "tsunami attack," communities submitted reconstruction plans including land use schemes to the national government. Redevelopment plans are in the process of being approved for funding, though actual rebuilding will not begin for years because of many factors: namely, the ground is still unstable or sinking in the coastal cities from the 9.0 subduction earthquake  (one tectonic plate going under another, causing one plate to sink). There were two medium-sized quakes while we in the region, one a 6.0 off the coast. A veteran of the California Loma Prieta quake of 1989, I recognized the tell-tale zig-zag signatures of earthquake damage in many buildings we visited.

Meanwhile, waste management issues, including removal of radiation and salt-contaminated soil and debris (petrochemicals are causing them to spontaneously combust) from the tsunami, also bedevil everyone from small farmers to civil authorities. In one city, they had 106 years worth of waste piled around what used to be the town center. The rest of Japan is disinclined to accept much of this waste because of potential radioactivity.

When and if they are able to build, the plans of two tsunami-ravaged cities stand out for being smart growth models. Ishinomaki was a pre-tsunami city of about 160,000: 4000 were killed by the tsunami, the most deaths of any city in Japan. Its entire port and low-lying downtown areas were virtually annihilated, with the odd building and remnant inexplicably standing, such as a domed cartoon art museum and, most bizarrely, a Statue of Liberty replica formerly housed in a pachinko parlor.

Ishinomaki has a plan to virtually wipe clean its remaining "ghost" downtown to create a mixed-use residential-commercial zone that will be two to three times more dense than before , according to city leaders we met. The city hopes to be more protected from the coast through site elevation, barriers and other features. The more vexing question is how to keep its young people from leaving the area for Tokyo and other big cities to the south: transit-oriented redesign will be one factor making younger citizens less likely to flee.

Another critical planning issue is how male-dominated Japan intends to ensure that all its citizens, including women, the elderly and handicapped in disaster-struck communities are part of the visioning process.

Rikuzentakata, a city of 22,000 (2,000 died in the tsunami), is making plans to make "new energy" a key part of its redevelopment vision. This city which was reported to have been "wiped off the map," by 65-foot (19.2 meter) waves is today pursuing national government subsidies and private investments to create large-scale distributed generation of renewables, including PV solar, land biomass (wood), marine biomass and offshore wind. Together with other nearby communities, Rikuzentakata is studying how to trade domestic CO2 credits for reduced emissions. The city's quest for zero waste and zero CO2 emissions also has it exploring industrial ecology strategies: i.e., using fish bones, tsunami debris wastes or other byproducts such as waste heat to be used as inputs for new processes.

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Rikuzentakata debris

We also toured a small community-supported organic farm in southern Fukushima Prefecture, outside the town of Iwaki. A volunteer non-profit had recruited helpers the previous summer to remove radiated soil--the farmers showed us how subsequent tests for radiation had recently come up negative. Meanwhile the "hot" soil they had dug out and scraped away was still heaped in a pile, because the national government would not remove or receive it, as the farmers had been led to believe they would.

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Farmer Ryoji Sato (left) at small community-supported farm outside Iwaki (above) and Soto showing map of reduced radiation levels in farm soil over period 2011 through March 2012 

Lunch found us back in Iwaki eating at a small take-out place in someone's home. Although every item served was organic and local, including mushrooms, for once in my life this type of fare made me lose my appetite. 

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Locally produced organic food lunch in Iwaki

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan relied on nuclear energy for 25-33% of its needs. This summer the last two remaining nuclear plants operating in Japan (out of 54) will be shut down, at least temporarily, and there are many signs throughout the nation that electric power is already in short supply. Although outdoor temperatures were hovering in the 20s and 30s (0 to -4C), we attended multiple meetings circled around one or two kerosene heaters, in buildings using almost no electric light, without the use of central indoor heating. Is this a glimpse into what a business-as-usual energy future looks like in other industrial countries?

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Meeting with Kamaishi city business, fishery and agricultural leaders

One meeting in a luxury high-rise hotel in Minami Sanriku had a planned blackout for two hours while we met with business and community volunteer leaders, along with the hotel's owner, who had sheltered and fed 400 community members after the tsunami (the bottom two stories were damaged but the rest of the building was habitable). Staff handed out heavy winter parkas so we could continue our discussions in relative warmth.

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Minami Sanriku shrine (photo Warren Karlenzig)

Besides jackets, Japan has been using technology to cope with its new dilemma. Utility sponsored websites and mobile apps let people know exactly when to conserve the most, which they have been doing by hanging wet clothes to dry in south-facing windows or balconies, and by curtailing use of light, heat or appliances. So far Japanese society has reduced its energy use to meet a 30% power deficit, but the margin between rolling or planned blackouts and power is paper thin, even in Tokyo.

Later this month, our delegation will be working with UNCRD to develop recommendations based upon our visit of the Tohoku Region's three tsunami and radiation-impacted prefectures. My prediction is that Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima will remain in the global consciousness not only for this one-year anniversary of their triple disaster, but for the lessons they underscore for all of us as we make our way into an uncertain future for energy, water, food, and shelter in the wake of disasters, natural or not.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and co-author of the United Nations Shanghai Manual on global sustainable city planning and management.




 


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I was quoted in the lead article by Michael Totty in Monday's Wall Street Journal on "How to Build A Greener City." The article (and quote) leads off a special section, including the following articles:

  • An Apple Tree Grows in Suburbia
  • The Urban Quest for Zero Waste
  • Testing Their Metals (on reducing industry material use)
  • Building Owners Want Water That Never Leaves
  • Power Play: GE Makes Big Bet on Little Firms
  • In Fracking's Wake
  • Talking About Waste With P&G
  • Cities as Ecosystems a Fresh Look
  • Reduce Energy Usage at Home
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.  
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The internet, distributed renewable energy, electric vehicles and energy management are ready to coalesce: the impact on cities and our lives will be profound. The US-China Green Energy Conference (sponsored by the US-China Green Energy Council) held Friday in the Silicon Valley took a deep bi-national dive into what smart grids are and what they will mean for so-called smart cities, their wired citizenry and the future of global carbon emissions.

Smart grid specifics are finally starting to emerge from the marketing haze. They will rely heavily on smart buildings, and are a critical solution in making renewable energy more scalable through more efficient energy transmission systems. Cities like Dubuque, Iowa are working with 1,000 residents to test smart grid applications and have reportedly lowered their water use by 6% in early trials with IBM.

Elsewhere, China is testing a four-square kilometer smart grid pilot area in its national urban eco showcase, Tianjin Eco-City. The smart grid includes a 30kw PV solar microgrid on the roof of the Tianjin "Eco-City Business Hall," where residents will be able to charge their electric vehicles while they view virtual reality demonstrations of how the smart grid works, including its "self-healing" capabilities within the Eco-City's network.

In terms of renewable energy, smart grids will be a killer app. Right now, when the wind completely dies in larger areas of wind power generation, such as the West Texas plains, the transmission system supplying electricity to cities, including Austin and Dallas, suffers a "mad scramble," according to Liang Min, of the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In fact, according to Chuck Wells from OSISoft, such power hiccups are currently so disruptive, that 45% more fossil fuel is needed to back up regional energy grids having large-scale wind and solar generation versus regional grids that rely only on fossil fuels.

On the home or business side, people are responsible for about 30% of a typical building's energy system performance, said John Skinner, Managing Director of Intel's Open Energy initiative. The more reliable information people have, the more likely they can make smart decisions about energy use, and the more likely they can pay less for energy than they do with analog meters (the ones with the wheels turning inside them).

Energy transactions will become more transparent through next-generation smart grid transaction languages, such as TeMIX which was presented to the US-China energy conference by Edward Cazalet, CEO of TeMIX. Cazalet's presentation reminded me of how the internet was optimized when TCP/ IP, the unifying data transfer protocols behind the web, were created. The capability for energy systems to use a unified language around energy use and transactions will be critical. This language will allow governments, businesses and residents to better manage their energy consumption. Currently, energy costs can  vary tremendously based on factors including climate, usage and equipment, costing as much as five times or more during peak hours. Few people outside of large businesses realize they can cut energy costs dramatically by changing their behavior, which can be as straightforward as running energy guzzling appliances during off-peak hours.

None of this means that smart meters are a panacea. In cities throughout California, smart meters have been rolled out clumsily by the utility Pacific Gas and Electric. After four years of replacing residential and business analog meters with wireless smart meters, a vocal and well-organized group of citizens are objecting to the continuous signals they transmit. Others object based on invasion of privacy or fear the new meters would overcharge them. PG&E has finally gotten around to a public education program extolling the benefits of smart meters, which they say are mandatory for their customers. Besides the heavy handedness, even with the new PR campaign, PG&E has not made the case for compelling consumer benefits.

Consolidated Edison of New York City, on the other hand has managed their smart meter pilot program more effectively. Con Ed ran an extensive public education program and transparent opt-out option for those that did not want smart meters (2% did not want them) on their home or business for their New York City pilot program. The utility offered participants in its pilot program rebates of $25-50. Six rate structures with hourly rate changes and a web-based consumer dashboard explained and demonstrated different rates, according to EPRI's Liang Min.

Many companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, General Electric and Google are eyeing the nascent smart grid for its potential not just to make cities more eco-efficient, but for also for lucrative smart-grid revenue streams as they penetrate the last major untapped digital pathway into our lives.

"We are cooperating with many high tech companies," Kai Xie, General Manager of the US Office of the China State Grid told the US-China Energy Conference. "We have also developed some in-house products for our customers, including a dashboard (with Intel) as part of a two-way communication combined smart meter and consumer portal. "

Our information, communications, photographs, entertainment and medical industries are all now increasingly digital, and soon our energy will be digitized, too. Let's hope the planet and our cities will benefit from a smooth and well thought out transformation.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  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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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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Dehli Metro, Phase One

Is India trying to turn a corner toward more sustainable economic development with its recent reduction in fossil fuel subsidies?

India's decision to completely cut gasoline subsidies last month has created national protests, as new unsubsidized gas prices rose to about $4.60 a gallon. The country has also reduced subsidies to natural gas, diesel and kerosene, all to balance a budget and reportedly redistribute money for economic development, including the planning of cities with more sustainable energy and transportation.

Gasoline will no longer be sold below cost by producers and retailers in India, as it had been until the late June announcement was made to end the subsidies, which have been cut $5.2 billion. That leaves the remaining government and state owned fuel companies subsidy spending at about $11.5 billion this fiscal year.

India has embarked on a program to develop new and greener cities, and to redesign existing cities for greater sustainability as its urban population swells in the wake of a national population that is forecast by the United Nations to surpass China's population by 2030.

The nation is moving from its agrarian roots to a service-based economy that has been boosted by the rise of the companies in information technology, health care and other professional services.

Clean technology areas being investigated for large-scale implementation with urban development include infrastructure investments in PV solar, geothermal energy, and advanced wastewater treatment. A new metro rail system in Delhi that opened a major line earlier this year is now one of the world's largest.

Indeed, India--like China--may be on a course to reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.   



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The BP oil gusher should remind us that our civilization relies on unseen, not very well understood forces, especially energy and the environment, for our day-to-day economies.

Our institutions and communities have recently failed stress tests that pushed system designs beyond intended limits: whether it's toxic exurban real estate assets, climate-altering pollution or deepwater oil drilling.

The Post Carbon Institute just published my report, "The Death of Sprawl: Redesigning Urban Resilience for the Twenty-first Century Resource Crises." Random exurban sprawl and informed urban systems are the opposite ends of a spectrum. In this continuum, the interplay of economics, energy and natural resources management can be optimized (or wasted or ignored) through planning, design, behaviors and technology to yield astonishingly different outcomes.

The chapter will be in a Fall 2010 book being published by The University of California Press and Watershed Media.

We need to understand what stresses will hit before the levees reach their breaking point. When stresses do hit, we will better know how to respond quickly and systemically. Meanwhile, we're stuck with the impacts of scores of towns like Victorville, California, which were overbuilt during the height of 1990s and early 2000s speculation. I examine in detail just how Victorville became a poster child for foreclosures and why it is a harbinger for our economy, resources and oil use. Chances are if you are in the West, Sunbelt or Midwest, there's one of these towns out on the fringes near you.
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Location of hyper-growth US Boomburbs 2000-2009 (click to enlarge)

Quickly developed and poorly planned exurban communities, called "Boomburbs," require cars for virtually every human activity outside the home, going to school, eating out, shopping, dating, seeing a movie, playing and of course, working. But working actually comprises only about 25 percent of the driving we do as a nation: the national reliance on cars goes far beyond our jobs, and is more based on how our communities and streets are designed.

(If that "Green Home" you see in so many magazines doesn't analyze how people get to and from that home, then it's probably far from being sustainable.) 

The foreclosures started in these exurban areas after gas prices started rising in 2006, impacting local communities, lenders and housing or strip mall developers that formed the points of the triangle, or a pyramid, you might say. A bank, rig or smokestack regulator won't limit the flood of bad paper, crude or carbon emissions if rules can be circumvented in order to make more money. That's the point when stresses build up, exposing failures that at first seem an outlier, then become more commonplace as the very fabric of the system gives way. 

Historically cheap gas was enabled by the federal government and foreign producers, combined with no-holds barred real estate development encouraged by the feds, states, and local communities, and of course the banking industry. Zero down homes are still being offered by developers and their agents in these sprawled communities. To be fair, many low-income individuals wanted to own or invest in their first home, but greed greased the transactions.

Sprawl was one of the major factors requiring more driving and more cars, leading to more time spent commuting, poorer health and ever-greater oil consumption. As a nation we needed to Drill, Baby, Drill in ever-more precarious situations, be it Iraq or the deep waters of the Gulf. 

Meanwhile, the ongoing foreclosure crisis in sprawled California, Arizona, Florida and Texas is undermining a national economic recovery, and will eat away at resources for decades to come: energy, water, time, investment, and security.

washington DC real estate.jpg 
Real estate prices in or near transit-served Washington DC (green arrows indicate prices going up) and in car-dependent outlying areas (red arrows mean prices decreasing): Credit: Kaid Benfield, NRDC, 2010

Even before the oil gusher, smart institutional money started to avoid sprawl like the plague for the first time. Now, there is a new wrinkle: will the BP Deepwater Horizon incident change global access to oil and the public's cognitive understanding of what burning gas and driving really mean?

So far the reaction in this nation has been to talk about developing renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar and nuclear energy. None of those forms of energy have been used to power our cars and trucks on a meaningful scale--though they will in 10-20 years--so such talk is premature.

Other nations, such as China in wind and solar, are leading US development in such technology, so we are falling down in preparing for the distant day when cars will be powered mainly by renewable energy and alternative fuels (Brazil has gained dominance in producing non-food based ethanol).

Euro nations have tempered their oil addiction by taxing gas at a higher rate while also building denser communities requiring much less driving, and allowing many people to walk or cycle to their destinations. Besides being more energy efficient for residents, these cities and suburbs are also more attractive to businesses and tourists, with their density and mixed-uses (cheese and wine markets, parks, schools and office buildings) being a big part of the charm.

China and India are embarking on ambitious programs to build new cities and redesign existing cities, which is a necessity, considering their exploding urban populations. While automotive growth is a given in these nations (China just overtook the US in auto sales last year), both nations are weighing innovative metro-area designs. Tianjin, China has an "eco-city" district (one of 40 in the nation) that is planned to have 90 percent of all trips by public transit, bicycle or walking.

Tianjin-China.jpg 

Denver, meanwhile, passed an innovative update to its zoning codes this week that will make its transit-oriented planning and investments more successful, reducing auto-dependent development and integrating more mixed uses into the city's neighborhoods.

Not everyone wants to or is able to afford living in a city or dense suburbs served by transit. But as "The Death of Sprawl" illustrates, we need to find a way out of the institutional, economic and environmental hangover from the last days of cheap and easy oil.

We can deny there's a problem and continue our delusional ways, or we can put the bottle down, sober up and get to work on seeing what the rest of our lives can really be.    

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.  




 

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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