Here are the top ten sustainability related stories of 2008 that we have been watching and participating in at Common Current, a global sustainability consultancy. True to sustainability system dynamics, most of these items impact the other items on the list, and they will continue to unfold in 2009 and beyond.
1. Election of Barack Obama
After Barack Obama’s historic November 2008 election, he continued to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the risks posed by global climate change and the nation’s dependency on foreign energy. In addition to making green jobs and clean technologies a major part of a national economic stimulus package and a precondition for many cabinet appointments, Obama’s view of sustainability as an opportunity shows he will take on vexing problems with new solutions.
Obama’s statement on “60 Minutes” when asked about his energy priorities with oil going from $147 a barrel to under $60 a barrel was telling: “We go from shock to trance. You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start filling up our SUVs again. And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. It’s part of the addiction, all right. That has to be broken. Now is the time to break it.”
Obama’s dipping into the Clinton well to appoint former EPA politcal warhorse Carol Browner as Energy and Climate Czar demonstrates that his new solutions don’t necessarily mean new people will be addressing them.
Barack Obama with new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and “Energy and Climate Czar” Carol Browner (AP photo)
One of Obama’s sustainability-related appointments, though, does demonstrate how multi-sector collaboration will reshape the US economy to be more energy efficient and less carbon intensive. Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy is a savvy choice. Chu, a Nobel-prize winning director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has piloted economic-development enhancing climate change solutions with the energy industry, the green building sector, venture capital firms and alternative fuel academic researchers. He also supervised the Helios Project, which is trying to bridge the gap between transportation and solar energy technologies.
And to bolster the administration’s science-based approach on policy further, Obama selected Harvard’s John Holdren as Chief Science advisor. Holdren is respected as one of the leading experts on global climate science (he advised Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth), and is well versed in clean technologies.
2. The 2008 Presidential Campaign
Unlike previous elections where “The Environment” garnered nary a mention, the months leading up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama saw the big-time advent of sustainability topics.
Both McCain and Obama supported carbon cap and trading for industry to reduce greenhouse gases. Obama also made a vague campaign pledge of investing $150 billion over 10 years on clean tech and energy efficiency.
But the most memorable sustainability campaign moments came in spring when gas prices began to hit their historic high of more than $4 a gallon. McCain’s call for a consumer federal gas tax holiday was met with derision from most including Obama, as it would only make foreign oil dependence worse, not to mention increase carbon emissions. The McCain “gas tax holiday plan,” supported by then-candidate Hillary Clinton, died on the vine during the heat of June.
3. 2008: The Highest Gas and Oil Prices Ever
When oil reached $4-5 a gallon at the pump and more than $145 a barrel in July, a future of energy volatility and potential energy scarcity came into sharper focus. Record numbers of Americans took to public transit, while others reconsidered where and how they could use less gas not only in their cars but in their lives: “Mixed-use” real estate (neighborhoods with shops, jobs and homes) with good public transit were suddenly hot tickets. Meanwhile, people started using web tools such as “WalkScore“ to judge whether potential jobs and homes were easy walking distances to shopping, schools and entertainment. Offices or homes that were too car-dependent were suddenly out of fashion.
4. 2009: The Lowest (Relative) Gas and Oil Prices Ever?
The world economic meltdown of 2008-2009 demonstrates how closely energy supply, particularly oil, greases the gears of commerce–and vice versa. As the stock market and demand plunged, so did oil prices. Oil reached a year low of under $40 a barrel in late December, when OPEC’s announcement of production cuts did little to stop the slide.
The real hand on the throttle of pricing is the economy, as global demand has slowed considerably. When the economy does pick up, scarce supply (or speculation about scarce supply) might again force steep price hikes, as private oil companies and nationally owned oil producers are canceling development plans for refineries and exploration because of the large drop in prices. In the meantime, alternative fuel development will be hurt as this emerging market, when unsubsidized, requires a minimum oil price of about $50 a barrel to be competitive with crude.
5. Arctic Ice Cap Melting Accelerates Wildly
The surprising loss noted by scientists in 2008 of the Arctic ice cap and inland Arctic ice is major cause of on-going global environmental, economic and geo-political concern, with the area now up to ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the 1980s. The newly open Arctic waters will cause even warmer temperatures in the region and beyond, as water absorbs far more heat from the sun than does ice.
Besides releasing the trapped methane (worse than carbon dioxide in terns of greenhouse impacts) from permafrost, melting inland ice is raising global sea levels. Two trillion tons of arctic ice has melted since 2003, according to NASA. Sea ice in the arctic region broke up earlier in the season, opening up a potential permanent shipping lane around the former polar ice cap and precipitating an international scramble for the region’s energy resources.
6. Super Storms and Global Climate Change Adaptation
The strength, duration and location of major storms in 2008 led many to speculate how much global climate change is contributing to deadly and economically devastating events.
- Burma’s coast was inundated with a tropical cyclone that left an estimated 135,000 dead and up to a million homeless and/or without food. The cyclone’s intensity and course was unprecedented for this Asian region.
Burma’s southern coast before and after (May 2008) Typhoon Nargis. A present day image providing a snapshot of what many climate change forecasts project for some coastal areas.
On the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ike came ashore as a dangerously large hurricane (though only officially Category 2 strength) near the Houston-Galveston area, killing at least 17, and destroying or damaging thousands of homes as well as knocking out refineries, oil platforms and major supply pipelines. Southeastern US cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, NC were hit with severe price hikes and gas shortages for the month that followed Ike, demonstrating the vulnerability of the nation’s economy to storms that may be intensified by climate change.
7. China’s Industry Impact on Olympics, Consumer Products, Global Food and Air
(Thanks to Jared Press on this)
After taking up a “Blue Skies” campaign and relocating or ceasing industrial production and much of Beijing’s downtown traffic, China barely cleared its polluted skies in time for the opening Summer Olympic ceremonies. Air, water and toxic waste pollution have been increasing steadily in the nation as a result of consumer demand in the United States for inexpensive products. Only one tenth of the nation’s sewage is treated, according to a University of Hong Kong scientist. This “ask no questions” mentality has created runaway cancer rates, turned rivers bright green or black, and smudged the atmosphere so much that at times in Beijing airplanes have not been allowed to land.
China also by 2008 became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It spews a dangerous blend of particulates, sulfur, mercury and other deadly compounds, as new coal plants are fired up at a rate of two per week. Air pollution on the West Coast of United States and Canada has been recently shown to contain as much as one-third of its air pollutants directly from China.
Then there is product contamination from China, which began with lead-tainted toys and jewelry, and spread to exported poisonous toothpaste by 2007. In 2008 the industrial and agricultural by-product melamine, first detected in animal feed for chickens, cattle, and fish has now gone up the food chain into eggs and milk. The tainted baby formula has caused kidney failure and illness in 294,000 Chinese infants and six deaths. Tainted chocolate, chickens and hogs have been found in the US, though the meat was not recalled, so it’s likely that many Americans have been unknowingly exposed to China’s dangerous practices not only in the air that they breathe, but in the food they eat.
8. Foreclosure Crisis: Recipe for Smart Growth?
The foreclosure crisis that started in 2007 when gas prices began to skyrocket and that magnified in 2008, had its beginnings in the areas of the United States that largely lack public transit, walkability and mixed real estate uses. Meanwhile as gas prices rose to record levels, metro areas that had housing and jobs close to good transit and walkable amenities saw their value hold steady. Any plan for preventing future housing sector meltdowns needs to include an analysis of how gas and transportation prices pushed many over the financial edge, despite the plentiful supply of distant housing from job markets that seemed (or seems) affordable with low gas prices.
One smart move in policy in 2008 was California’s Senate Bill 375, the nation’s first law designed to limit sprawl and provide communities and developers incentives to build transit-oriented “infill.”
9. US Auto Fleet to go Electric?
With the survival of the current US auto industry in doubt, whatever rises from the ashes will likely be greener and cleaner than anything Detroit ever thought possible before the 2008 downturn. Leading the “charge” for an electric US fleet is none other than Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Ford III, grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford. Bill Ford met privately with Obama during the campaign and with Obama and his advisors after the election: Ford is reportedly advocating for a mostly consumer electric fleet as a way of restructuring the industry to be competitive with imports while reducing climate change emissions.
10. Green Jobs
Through the leadership of Van Jones, president of Green For All, the reality of “Green Collar Jobs” came roaring into the United States during 2008, culminating in the “Green Jobs Act” which could be included in Congress’s 2009 economic stimulus package. The act aims to provide 25,000 jobs in solar panel installation, home and business energy retrofitting and other high-paying jobs for Americans, launching new training centers and education programs in high unemployment areas with disappearing manufacturing jobs. The US Conference of Mayors estimates growth of 4.2 million new “green collar” jobs in the nation over the next 30 years. Welcome news after a sobering year.