Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Worldchanging.com is closing down.  A big loss for the sustainability blogosphere.


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The Seattle City Council hosted a community forum tonight regarding one of their sixteen priorities: making the City of Seattle carbon neutral.  Community-based workgroups gave presentations of their findings and recommendations to Council in each of 8 categories: land use, neighborhoods, energy, green careers, transportation, food systems,  youth and zero waste.  It was an inspiring and thought-provoking event, looking at the issue of carbon neutrality from a wide variety of angles.  I am glad to see that a carbon neutral goal has taken off in Seattle, starting from Alex Steffen’s vision at a talk in Seattle last November (viewable here).  The environmental community is now abuzz with discussions and initiatives for carbon neutrality.  I am particularly encouraged that the City Council has picked up the gauntlet, and is funding technical plans (the Stockholm Environmental Institute is involved) and organizing community groups. 

Yet no one has produced a vision of how a carbon neutral city would actually look.  Yet no one is grappling (at least out loud) with the very significant policy initiatives and cultural changes required for carbon emissions to go to zero… or with the size of forest the City would need to purchase and forever protect to offset our carbon emissions. 

The City commissioned an inventory of the City’s carbon emissions in 2008.    How did the recommendations proposed tonight address the largest categories of current emissions in that inventory?

1. Cars and Light Duty Trucks (1.4 million tons):  The transportation, land use, youth and neighborhoods proposed policies to make biking, walking and transit the most convenient ways to travel.  The land use group recognized that dense neighborhoods reduce the need for travel-miles.  No one could estimate a %reduction in carbon emissions by implementing these policies, or describe the infrastructure needed for zero carbon emissions from personal transportation.

2. Trucks (1.2 million tons): Not explicitly addressed by any group, although the food system presentation recommended increasing local food production, which would reduce food being trucked into the city.

3. Sea-Tac Airport (1.1 million tons): The transportation presentation noted that these emissions will need to be addressed eventually (no plan yet).

4. Commercial Buildings (0.9 million tons): The energy presentation was the most visionary of the 8 committees, promoting self-sufficient  energy districts and Passivhaus construction.  The presenters went beyond carbon neutrality and proposed net clean energy exports.  Short on practicalities however.  Converting our commercial buildings to Passivhaus standards (is that possible for existing buildings?) and converting all building energy away from natural gas and oil and towards clean electricity can actually lead us to carbon neutrality.

5. Cement production (0.7 million tons): One presentation (I’ve forgotten which) noted the definitional challenges for reducing cement batch plant emissions.  If the goal is carbon neutrality within Seattle city limits, regulating the cement plant out will eliminate these emissions within city limits.  However, the owner of the plant is likely to ramp up cement production elsewhere, so the emissions have only been displaced, not eliminated.

6. Residential buildings (0.6 million tons): The land use presentation noted that dense living results in lower energy consumption due to shared walls.  And the discussion of commercial buildings above applies here: district energy production and passivhaus construction can lead us towards zero.

The City of Seattle has made a great start in even studying carbon neutrality.  But we need to move beyond short-term 5% to 10% reductions and map out a feasible plan to reach actual neutrality.

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Build the City will cover climate change, because I believe that it is one of the largest threats humanity faces, and that city living is a significant way to mitigate climate change.  

Instrument Temperature Record (NASA). Source: Wikimedia commons


But not everyone agrees with me.  Debate has raged, but much of it has not expressed a complete worldview of problems and solutions.  I have summarized the logical categories of climate change views below, with the most common responses.  

Category 1 – Climate change is not real
     Response: Status quo.  

Category 2 – Climate change is real, but is not caused by humans
     Response: Since humans are not causing climate change, we have no need respond; so status quo.  

Category 3 – Climate change is real, primarily due to human activities
          3A: Climate change will be beneficial on average, or at least less damaging than preventing it.  [UPDATE: The primary proponent of this view, Bjorn Lomberg, has now moved into Category 3C.]
          3B: Reduction of carbon emissions is unlikely, so we need to adapt to climate change.
          3C: Reduce our carbon emissions to prevent continued climate change.
          3D: Geo-engineering to reverse the climate change trend.  

The response to Category 1 is reasonable; if the climate is not expected to change, then we do not need to have a response.  Yet there is a need to scientifically explain variations in temperature, glaciation, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over past hundred years, which has been attempted more by isolated anecdote than with an all-encompassing theory.   

Category 2 is more problematic; if you accept that the climate is changing or is likely to change in the future, you should propose some sort of response, such as those listed for Category 3.  Yet I could find no evidence of these views online.  Those who deny that climate change is caused by human actions generally also oppose any political efforts to respond to the changes, such as adaptation or geo-engineering.  

Category 3 reflects the balance of opinion of the world’s governments, international organizations and scientists.  Most online commentary focuses on responses 3B and 3C.  Climate change appears to be accelerating, and political solutions (or easy technical solutions that do not require political change) have not yet materialized.  More and more commentators are realizing that we need to proactively adapt to the changes that are already occurring and will continue to occur, even under the most optimistic carbon reduction scenarios.  

The governmental, organizational and scientific communities are virtually united in their views on climate change.  Those who deny climate change do not present a logical and consistent scenario that explains all the evidence and proposes a rational response.  Yet public opinion is sharply divided, due to fear of change and aggressive FUD campaigns by those who see themselves as having something to lose.  As I saw when developing the 60 Greatest Cities post, 7 of the 10 largest Fortune 500 Global corporations in the world are based on fossil fuels (oil, automobiles, electricity).  They will not give up their cash cows without a fight.  And therefore the fight continues.

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