Norway’s Deforestation Ban

Forests play a vital role not only in their own ecosystems but in the well-being of the entire planet largely through the process of photosynthesis whereby plants and trees in a forest take in a great deal of carbon dioxide during the process, thus reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and releasing oxygen in return. Even though we are well aware of the importance of plants and trees to our existence, that hasn’t stopped deforestation from occurring and being a major contributor to climate change.

Norway is looking to help address that problem, reports Forbes, by effectively “banning” deforestation. Obviously, they aren’t trying to prosecute culprits outside of their jurisdiction. Instead, they are putting in place regulations to ensure that goods coming into their country are not products of deforestation-related activities. Norway’s Standing Committee on Energy and Environment proposed the initiative.A forest that has been affect by deforestation

Crops and products that will be most impacted by the decision include soy, timber, palm oil, and, beef, as they are some of the most common crops associated with widespread deforestation. It is estimated that such crops and products from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea, accounted for 40% of tropical deforestation and 44% of CO2 emissions during the period of 2000 to 2011. However, under Norway’s new regulations, none of  these crops will be able to be imported, unless the provider can produce evidence of sustainable sourcing methods.

This new commitment is a result of the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit. There, the governments of Norway, Germany, and the UK jointly agreed to take actionable steps to encourage the sustainable production of “commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef and timber”. Two years later, Norway has become the first country to introduce legislation designed to put their words into action.

Norway’s efforts may soon have some global financial implications. Biodiversity is expected to become a factor in investment decisions for Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund.

These efforts are not new in Norway as this Scandinavian country has promoted biodiversity in the past and it even went so far as giving the Brazilian government $1 billion to aid in the cessation of deforestation. The results were admirable— Brazil has saved over 30,000 square miles of rainforest and reduced deforestation rates by 75%.

Sustainable Urbanization

Last autumn, all 193 member states of the United Nations agreed to a set of goals that would ensure the health of the planet for future generations. Known as the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), the efforts are centered around the elimination of global problems such as poverty, hunger, and deadly disease. A number of well-known entertainers and social leaders were present to praise the resolution.nighttime skyline of a city

Also attending the event were mayors from several major cities around the world. Their presence was notable because several of the new U.N. goals are focused on the challenges of urbanization and the need for  sustainable cities, and communities. But even though only one goal explicitly mentions cities, all of the others involve some kind of municipal leadership, and all of the mayors who were present pledged to have their sustainable development goals met by the year 2030.

Dialogue among the member states is expected to be ongoing, and there will no doubt be future meetings to discuss various successes and failures as this kind of involvement and interaction is important for keeping the SDGs in government’s’ sights.

There will of course be a number of challenges ahead if for no other reason than the fact that different governments can take widely different paths to the same result. The way national governments interact with their local counterparts can vary widely from state to state, and there is no agreed upon way to actually measure progress. Finally, the question of how to unify the joint results of different cities also remains unknown–although an upcoming conference on cities may provide some answers.  

However, the fact that there are so many details yet to be finalized does not mean the various metropolitan areas need to wait before they get started.  Quite the contrary–Any steps taken towards a more sustainable future will be welcomed. Copenhagen, for instance, has long been exploring the ways it can become more sustainable, so for them the SDGs are just a directive to keep on pressing forward. Other countries, however, may lack some of the policy or infrastructure to develop sustainable systems. In those cases, laying down the groundwork could be considered an achievement.

Secretary general of United Cities and Local Governments Josep Roig has several suggestions about how SDGs can be realized. Basically, he wants mayors to look at plans that already existed before SDG’s were announced, then look for intersections. New York City is a good example of this— Mayor Bill De Blasio launched several sustainable Development initiatives with those goals in mind.

In order to keep track of the SDGs, an annual summit called the High Level Political Forum will meet each July, starting in 2017. But some countries are looking to make progress a year before that first meeting. Columbia, for instance, is looking to involve local governments in the pursuit of those SDGs.

However, there remains a disconnect between local and national responsibilities. Right now, local authorities are not included in the review process, so a lot of the progress markers that national governments are setting have no real meaning on a local level. In addition, since many  cities have only limited resources, there is a fear that they will be asked to do more than they are able to realistically accomplish.

Given these many points, one should keep in mind that ideas are nice, but when it really comes down to it practicality is what matters. That is why Sandra Ruckstuhl of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network has headed up a project that will help implement these goals in several cities across the U.S. because while there may be logistical challenges for SDGs, having someone actually leading and implementing projects is what will ultimately allow cities towards a sustainable future.

Rhode Island TEALS

Microsoft has officially backed a Rhode Island computer science education initiative.

In a recent blog post, Mary Snapp, Corporate Vice President and Head of Microsoft Philanthropies, announced that this powerhouse tech company had decided to invest in  Rhode Island’s TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) program – a program that is also supported by two local institutions of higher learning: Brown University and University of Rhode Island.

This investment and initiative are particularly important for the simple reason that computer literacy is fast becoming a required or needed skill in many jobs, and those who do not have the ability or means to learn basic computer skills at an early age may be at a disadvantage when they take up arms for the job hunt later in life. Indeed, computer science is undeniably a gateway to more meaningful employment and plays an active role in creating solutions for a number of problems.

In her blog, Snapp notes that Rhode Island’s TEALS program is just the latest in a number of computer literacy initiatives across the nation. Last winter, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan move to give education departments the funding and resources they need to bring adequate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education to every school across the country. Traction for integrating computer science into childhood education is becoming more and more important and more prevalent. Right now, over half of the states in the Union allow for computer science credits to be applied to obtaining a high school diploma.

Given this news, it should come as no surprise, that as new technologies become part of everyday life, expectations surrounding them must evolve and become more forward looking. 20 years ago, computers were still somewhat novel in the home. But who could blame anyone for thinking in such a way— how much could you really get done with a slow computer or even slower dial up connection? As for children, computers were little more than a toy; a platform for games and entertainment. But the years went by, World Book gave way to Wikipedia, 411 caved to search engines, and asking your friend for directions was supplanted by just plugging an address into Google Maps.  So in short, if young people are going to effectively compete in a world that is always connected, they will likely need to learn how it works as soon as they can read and write.

Getting on the Grid

It’s not uncommon to hear those resistant to the adoption of renewable energy sources cite the “unreliability” of predictable wind patterns and sunlight. And back in Texas in 2008, their cries were somewhat vindicated. On one particularly chilly night, residents in the western portion of the state began cranking up the heat just as wind dropped well below previously predicted speeds. A blackout ensued. Backup generators soon restored power to the area, but officials had to face a new question: How could they convince residents that renewable energy could become the norm if its sources (wind, sun) were unreliable at times? At some point, the wind will stop blowing; the sun will stop shining.

The reliability question still rages on. Last Summer, the Obama Administration announced the Clean Power Plan, which mandates power plants’ reduction of CO2 emissions by 32% from 2005 levels. Obviously, this is impossible without embracing some form of renewable (and clean!) energy. Right now, the convention is that coal or natural gas would serve as a backup for cleaner energy sources. But in the event “the wind stops”, utilities are back at square one, pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere.

In order to make society truly independent of dirty energy, researchers and entrepreneurs are scrambling to produce technology that will harbor clean energy reserves. Bill Gates, in the quest for “an energy miracle”, has been investing in technologies such as pool-sized battery reserves and solar paint.

But University of Colorado, Boulder researcher Chris Clack tells Vauhini Vara of CityLab that the answer may be much more simple than we think. Remember how the wind will stop blowing and the sun will stop shining? That only holds true in any one given place at a particular time. In Clack’s view, the wind is always blowing and the sun is always shining somewhere, and that is what we need to tap into. In other words, it’s time to get connected.

In a plan reminiscent of Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Plan, Clack and his fellow researchers at UC Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are arguing for the adoption of a national grid that will allow electricity generated by clean energy to be transmitted anywhere at any time. This isn’t without its obvious challenges, however. There’s the lingering question of federal funding and who would plan/build it (The Department of Energy? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? Private utility companies?). On top of that, if recent legislative trends can be used as a predictor of future progress, the fact that Congress is shying away from approving any massive infrastructure projects is not promising at all. And then there’s the question of local governments. How will a clean energy grid affect their economies? For states like West Virginia, which provides just under a quarter of all coal jobs in the nation, how do they deal with an inevitable labor imbalance? Lastly, even if all of that did get figured out, the legal battles surrounding imminent domain would flare up as some landowners probably won’t approve of their property being gutted for the installation of new infrastructure.

A nationalized grid can work, though. The Chinese and Indian governments have been working tirelessly to get their respective countries on the same page. But this makes for a difficult comparison to their potential US Counterpart: Those two countries are striving towards a unified grid because they can power their rising number of industrial factories. The US, on the other hand, is rapidly losing factories. So it becomes clear that in Asia, the grid is a business decision first; in America, the motivation is environmental.

And as for the question of electric delivery? The United States heavily favors alternating current for distribution of electricity. It’s much safer and more efficient in local communities, but for long distance transmission, direct current is the winner. Such a grid would require the use of DC lines, which are pretty rare in the US today— you can thank Tesla’s discoveries for that!

But the grid could still be a great idea if all the chips can fall in the right place. The fact of the matter is clean energy can be more abundant in one place than in another. Take the Florida capital city of Tallahassee, for example. It’s looking to reduce its own CO2 emissions by investing in solar energy. A noble start, but it will only account for two percent of the State’s energy production. So it’s looking into its prospects for wind energy— and they aren’t great, because there’s not a lot of it to go around. But in what appears to be a microcosm of Clack’s grid dreams, the city is planning on transmitting wind power from rural Oklahoma. While there are still some legal kinks to work out, this partnership could be an example for the entire country.

The Switch to Solar

Thinking about installing solar panels on your roof?  Well  kudos to you for recognizing, embracing, and doing your part to ensure the future of renewable energy and sustainable growth.

But now the hard part, where can you go to get impartial answers to all of your solar questions?There are generally quite a few solar panel installation companies and more and people installing solar on their homes, but the chance that you will get an unbiased view, find a true expert, or even have multiple friends or colleagues who have spent the time and money to go solar is probably pretty slim.

But don’t worry, CityLab Fellow Julian Spector recently talked to some solar energy experts and compiled a list of questions and answers that should help even the biggest solar novice on what you should think about before switching to solar.

dave-pflieger-solar-panel-1393880_960_720Some of his findings were pretty obvious, like whether or not your roof can actually support solar panels. Well, to begin, you can’t install panels when your roof is in shambles, and you will want to make sure any roofing repairs that need to be done are completed before installation, not afterwards— since it can be expensive and time-consuming to remove panels, fix your roof, then reinstall them. You also need to ensure that your roof isn’t heavily shaded. What good are the panels if the sun can’t even reach them? In addition, some property and homeowner or neighborhood covenants may not allow the installation of panels for a variety of reasons – some of which are purely aesthetic.

You’ll also want to consider what kind of solar energy you want to use. Contrary to popular belief, solar is not a one size fits all proposition. There are actually two types of solar power: photovoltaic and thermal. Photovoltaic converts sunlight to electricity, while in the case of thermal solar power, solar energy is used to heat water or air for use indoors. Using solar power for thermal energy is much less common than converting the power of the sun into electricity.  Then there are the more difficult questions:  which solar installation companies are trustworthy and reliable; should I lease or buy; what should I worry about in a solar contract; how do I connect to the grid?  For those and other questions, check out the article for useful resources and links that will help you not only get a much broader picture of solar power, but will also ensure if you take the plunge, you not only help the environment, you get a good return on your valuable investment. Good luck!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Clean Energy

When we talk about “clean energy”, and depending on who we’re talking to, two sources will almost always crop up: natural gas and nuclear energy. These two have been included in clean energy lists before, but in many arenas today you’ll see them excluded from the roster—despite the fact that  some voices will insist that these two sources should still make the cut.

In a piece for Fast Company Exist, Michael Shank of NYU’s Center For Global Affairs and Environmental Activist Leilani Münter, argued that there was no way that natural gas and nuclear could be counted among the ranks of clean energy because to include them in the discussion, we would have to fundamentally change what “clean energy” actually means.  In particular, he noted that  “clean energy” means  “zero waste” and that by that measure alone both nuclear and gas don’t make the grade.

Notably, the same is true about other “clean energy”.  Methane for example has it’s own emissions to worry about.  Although it is a different beast than CO2, is still a beast nonetheless. In particular, “methane is 86 times more potent than CO2—per unit mass—as a global warming agent over a 20 year period.” Hardly “clean” by any measure

Methane emissions aside, natural gas is prone to leaks and carries the risk of explosions. It can also have devastating effects on the water we breathe, and the air we drink— effects that include congenital birth defects, respiratory ailments, and cancers.

There is a persistent narrative that claims natural gas is a “bridge fuel”, that is, one that allows us to move away from coal in search of a more permanent clean solution. But if the technology for truly clean and renewable energy already exists (hello solar, wind, geothermal, etc), then what’s the point of creating “dirty” infrastructure, just to tear it down? Resources would be better spent developing what we already know to be clean.

The problem with nuclear on the other hand, isn’t the effects it can have on the environment, or even the looming prospect of another Chernobyl- or Three Mile Island-type disaster. It’s the sheer amount of waste that’s the problem. That waste is the cost of nuclear energy, and right now we really have no plan for where this type of waste should actually go. The best answer we’ve got at the moment is to stash it away in a mountain, put far underground, or jettison it off into the ether of outer space. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that putting the problem elsewhere and solving the problem altogether are entirely different courses of action.

So what do you think? Do you think natural gas or nuclear energy can really be considered clean?

Google’s Renewable Goal

Google wants to be completely powered by renewable energy by 2025.

Such a transformation would be a major accomplishment for the entire connected globe. Just imagine the sort of visibility renewable energy would gain if one of the most outwardly successful businesses was completely run in an environmentally sustainable way.

Even though renewable energy growth in the U.S. is steady, it still has a long way to go. In order to realize their dream, Google has turned its attention beyond the American shores and is looking towards Taiwan.

dave-pflieger-google-chrome-1326908_960_720Less than a week ago, the tech behemoth announced its intention to provide a (still undisclosed) amount of seed funding to Center for Resource Solutions. CRS is a nonprofit that brings sustainable energy to market. With Google’s funding, they hope to tap into the Taiwanese market, which is significant for at least two reasons. First, Google already has a data center there. If they want to see how they can grow a fully sustainable location first, there no better place to choose than one in a smaller market. Secondly, renewable energy in Taiwan is monopolized by a company called Taipower. Another company could bring some much needed competition to the sector, and the implications that follow are massive.

Right now, the presence of a singular company makes it hard to purchase energy in large quantities; it’s logistically not an option for a company to turn completely away from fossil fuels. But Google’s announcement couldn’t have come at a better time. The Taiwanese political landscape is changing, and a party that has made renewable energy one of it’s planks has just taken control of the nation’s governing body.

CRS’s inclusion in the market will allow for more transparency between consumer and provider, and it is expected that will lead to more companies besides Google being willing to spend on renewable energy.

Corporate Leadership is Focusing on Climate Change

In news that is, without a doubt, going to make millions of people around the globe happy, corporate leadership efforts and corporate social responsibility is taking a hard turn and beginning to focus on the environment and mitigating the damage done by climate change and global warming. As more and more scientists and civilians across the globe begin calling for real, substantial action to be taken on the growing threat of climate change, businesses are frequently seen as working against this drive. This is patently false and now, with the rise of environmentally-minded corporate leadership, businesses are going to be on the frontline of making sure the world is liveable for the future.corporate social responsibility and the environment

When you think about it, it makes sense that businesses are tackling the threat of climate change head on. A liveable earth is needed for the continuation of business and things such as water and energy directly affect all businesses across the globe, regardless of what they’re specializing in. Not only that, but businesses are in the perfect position for this sort of initiative and seeing as how going “green” is the hottest new buzzword, it makes sense that companies are realigning their priorities with those of their consumer-base.

Already, some major companies are taking impressive steps towards putting these plans into action. The Mars corporation has pledged to be Sustainable in a Generation by implementing plans that focus on water conservation, waste management, and the eventual elimination of fossil fuels by 2040. Microsoft is another company making strides in this field — they have established an internal carbon tax and are working to make the emission reduction targets understandable by not focusing on metric tons of CO2, but instead focusing on the dollars they cost. Along with Microsoft and Mars, companies like Siemens are also working to slash their carbon emissions and make environmental sustainability a central part of the company culture and mission. Is it too late for these efforts to have any real effect? This is something that remains to be seen. There are reports saying that we’ve already gone past the point of no return when it comes to the damage climate change will cause but regardless of the truth in that statement, it’s refreshing to see companies shoulder some of our shared responsibility to this earth we live on and begin to implement actions that could have a very real effect on our shared futures.

If you’d like to read more, the link is here.

Naming a Price In Green Building

The green building movement is in full swing, but how much are people willing to pay for it? A recent article in The Oregonian covers the trouble developers have knowing what a green feature is worth to a consumer, and what is being done to fix that.

Dave Pflieger

Naming a Price In Green Building

Some green features are readily apparent to anyone. A person will notice windows, doors or solar panels. But many features of green building are built deep into the fabric of the house. Ultra-efficient ventilation systems, green insulation and heat exchangers are not readily observable to the untrained eye, and oftentimes not to the trained eye either.

Developers are finding that some of their most green and energy efficient features are being overlooked by brokers and appraisers. As a result, there is very little clear data available on what eco-conscious consumers are willing to pay for green materials, technology and processes.

A non-profit out of Portland, Earth Advantage, is attempting to rectify the situation by educating real-estate professionals on how to spot green features and figure them into the price of the homes. The hope is that brokers and appraisers will take this information to consumers so that data will come in to see how much green building is worth.  Once those price points come in there will be room to push the practices out of their niche into the building community’s mainstream.

“A lot of this depends on the people who are out there on the front lines,” said Cathcart. “If you walk into a house and don’t know what questions to ask, things are going to be missed.”

Is Your Love for Coconut Hurting the Environment?

Dave Pflieger Coconuts Environment

The process of food cultivation and delivery altogether ranks as one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the craze over coconuts and all that they offer (milk, oils, water, meat) puts a great burden on the environment. From the cultivation, per se, to the transportation and commodification of coconuts a series of hazardous processes challenges the resilience of the planet.

As coconut is increasingly desired, farmers are forced to partake in monocultural farming, or restricting plots of land to growing one solitary crop. As part of this exploit, they use unnatural fertilizers to expedite growth and cut the number of diverse plant species that are indigenous to the biosphere in order to make room for the desired species. This reduces the flourishing diversity of an area, and reduces it to a perfunctory, monotonous farm.

Coconuts are well liked for their versatility. The oils are featured in cosmetics, the water is a favored source of hydration and replenishment, the meat is a tasty snack, and the milk is a culinary favorite and supports alternative diets for which animal products are not eaten. That being said, the wide use is responsible for its impact on the environment. The fruit often comes from foreign regions—tropical American and Asian areas—and its import requires a great deal of transportation. The Food and Agriculture Organization reported that Indonesia and the Philippines are leading producers of coconut (followed by India, Sri Lanka, and Brazil) whereas China, Malaysia, and the United States are among the leading importers.

One thing One Green Planet suggests is buying organic and fair trade certified products. Both ensure that the land was not exposed to unnatural chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The Fair Trade organization sees to it that fruits are grown safely, and that farmers are properly compensated for their labor. It’s a small step, but it’s one that needs to be taken in an age where so much risks environmental harm.