Top Ten Sustainability Stories of the Decade


It’s the end of the decade 2000-2009, and there has been
progress as well as potential disaster for sustainability. In chronological
order, I’ve chosen these ten stories to show a range of relevant global and national
issues and events on climate, business, government, media, design, technology,
language and demographics. Some of the entries are pegged to an exact date, while
others cover a time period.

The first entry, climate change is impacting all aspects of
sustainability thought, planning and action.

1.       Terror
of the Decade: Global Climate Change Confirmed by…Climate, IPCC, Heads of State

Time Period: 2000-2009

flood-in-mumbai.jpg

 

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that we humans are
changing the earth’s climate in ways in which millions are beginning to regret.
Ten of the hottest years on record globally have been recorded in the ten years
since
1997. Some of the impacts: rising overall sea levels from melting polar ice are
already damaging low-lying areas in Bangladesh, India, Egypt and China, and
threatening the very existence of island nations. More intense hurricanes (Katrina
killed more than 1,300 in 2006
and helped shut down the oil and gas refining sector in the Gulf Coast);
droughts, heat (the Europe heat event of 2003 caused more than 35,000 deaths) and wildfires (Australia’s Melbourne-area deadly firestorm of 2009 exploded
during one of the hottest periods ever recorded Down under, dramatizing the
ravishes of an ongoing 8-year drought).

So what if these are chance events, unrelated to man’s
impact on the globe’s climate? That’s a fair question and an outside
possibility, but odds are that these extreme events were at least partially due
to the rising global concentration of CO2, which is now at about 390 parts per
million (ppm), up from 315 ppm in the late 1950s. The real threat is that things will get much
worse (heat waves, droughts, floods, depletion of glaciers and water supplies,
agriculture and fisheries disruption) if our global greenhouse gases continue
to increase. Human-based greenhouse gas emissions increased 70% between 1970
and 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, also known
as the IPCC). The watershed IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007 developed by 2,500 of the world’s leading climate
scientists, put the likelihood at more than 90 percent that the global
temperature increase of .74 Celsius between 1906 and 2005 has been caused by
human greenhouse gas emissions. How often have 2,500 scientists agreed on
anything? The landmark 2007 “Stern Review on the Economic of Climate Change,” by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern,
estimates that global climate change could negatively impact the world
economy annually at 5-20 percent Gross Domestic Product, while Stern estimated
that the annual costs of reducing the risks of global climate
change are estimated to be about 1 percent of world GDP.

Unfortunately, the UN COP-15 conference in Copenhagen ended with a whimper, producing only a non-binding agreement
to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above
pre-industrialized temperature levels. Follow-up actions, including a potential binding
treaty, will set the agenda for the next decade and beyond.  

2.      
Word: Sustainability

Time
Period: 2000-2009

 

The use of the term
“sustainability” itself has been a major surprise this past decade. In 2000,
only a few policy wonks and academics used the word, traditionally defined as meeting
present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their needs.”
Now the
public (maybe even more than the media) is gleaning that “sustainability”
differs considerably from “environmentalism” as it is based on planning for an
uncertain future based on economics, culture, resources and technology.

As the current decade closes many are searching for a
term that could replace “sustainability,” claimed to be almost meaningless now
because it has been hijacked by greenwashing corporate marketing campaigns (I
bet some such ads pop up next to this post somewhere in future digital
ether!). “Resilience” is currently gaining  traction, but we’ll perhaps need another decade to see if the “s-word” gets dethroned.

3.       Standards:
LEED Green Buildings

Date: March 2000

USGBC_logo.jpg

 

The US Green Building Council
formally released its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design building standards
(LEED)
full Green Building Rating system 2.0 in March 2000. The impact on the nation’s
building and construction industry over the next ten years has been wildly
popular and transformational on numerous levels. The number of LEED-certified
or registered buildings increased from 10,000 in 2007 to 20,000 by the
beginning of 2009
. Providing a system-based measurable standard of what “green” means is useful
for policy, benchmarking and new market development. The LEED ratings, for instance,  were
integral to my ability to develop an overall sustainability benchmarking of US
cities starting in 2005 (which can found in my book How Green is Your City?). Critics
have assailed LEED
for providing standards in certification that do not reflect
actual performance in energy efficiency. Nevertheless, LEED standards, are now being positioned for international
markets (in competition with Europe’s BREE-AM and China’s
emerging Three Star standard), and they continue to be a powerful
teaching tool, not to mention an industry onto themselves. Today’s savvy urban
planner, construction manager or architect must possess the LEED-AP,
“Accredited Professional” tagline on their business card. In addition to new
commercial building construction, LEED is now being applied to homes, existing
buildings, schools, neighborhoods and may even extend to cities, under the LEED for
Neighborhood Development
standard
that was launched in 2009.

The next challenges for green building standards will be
rating life-cycle impacts (carbon, water, scarce resources) of construction processes and material, while integrating measures of building performance–how much buildings actually save energy or water once they are occupied.

4.       Product:
The Toyota Prius

Date: July 2000

harrisonford.jpgharrisonford.jpg

Back in the 1990s, Toyota
Motor Corporation CEO Katsuaki Watanbe helped birth the “G-21,” later known as
the Prius, when he decided that middle-class consumers wanted a car that used
new motor innovations to be fuel-efficient. The Prius hybrid gas-electric car
was introduced in the United States in July 2000. It quickly became a Hollywood status symbol after Leonardo DiCaprio bought one
in 2001, and he and other stars such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart
(remember her?) began showing up at the 2003 Oscar ceremonies not in
chauffeured limos, but behind the wheel or driven in their own Priuses. By the
decade’s peak sales year of 2007, the Toyota Prius had sold 180,000 units in the
United States. These cars get 40-50 miles per gallon but
perhaps even more importantly provide a meter showing real-time and historic
fuel efficiency; self-monitoring feedback is one of the greatest ways of
changing behavior to reduce energy use.

Plug-in electric models of the Prius will begin to be released on  test basis in
2010
, in a challenge to the introduction of GM’s Chevy Volt. Plug-ins may
create fuel efficiencies that can truly reduce carbon emissions and oil
dependency, getting from 51 to 100+ miles per gallon. One problem with electric
cars or plug-in hybrid electrics is that their true sustainability impact depends on exactly
how the electricity they use is produced at the power plant: renewables or
dirty coal? In parts of the United States that continue to burn large amounts
of coal to generate electricity (Southeast, lower Midwest and Plains states),
driving an electric car does little or nothing to reduce a person’s overall
carbon footprint when compared to gas-burning cars. When you consider cars and
health, social, land use and material life-cycle impacts, driving less is better for people’s
fitness
, the
environment and the planet.

5.       Corporate
Story. Wal-Mart Embarks on a “Green” Path

Time
Period: 2004-2005

walmartlogo.jpg

 

I must admit, I was a skeptic when I first heard of
Wal-Mart’s plan to go green in 2004 from Jib Ellison, founder of Blue Skye
Consulting
, one
of the major collaborative forces behind Wal-Mart’s transformation. Wal-Mart,
at that point the largest company in the world (it’s now number 3), had
been known for its ruthless management style, questionable labor practices, and
for helping put locally owned stores in towns across the country out of
business. Ellison had met with Wal-Mart’s then-CEO Lee Scott at the behest of
Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman, and
Scott decided upon a serious campaign to make the company more resource and
energy efficient. Since that meeting, the company has been streamlining its
transportation fleet, buildings and some products to be less environmentally
destructive. The company is now targeting its supply chain, which is primarily
in China, in a loosely defined, greening protocol.

The impact of Wal-Mart going green helped awaken the
nation’s business leaders to the potential of making their own operations and
supply chains energy and resource efficient, (just sounds like good business to me). Wal-Mart announced earlier in 2009 that it would require
manufacturers to calculate and disclose the full environmental costs of
ingredients and processes on product labels sometime in the next five years.
Suppliers, formerly isolated or little regulated, are now assessing their
operations in a way they never would have without the threat of greater
scrutiny from their biggest customer.

6.      
Regulations: California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006
(AB 32)

Time
Period: 2005-2006

Arnold_Schwarzenegger.jpg

 

When California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger made the declaration in June 2005 that, “I say the debate is
over (on climate change),” 
many were still heatedly arguing that climate change needed more studies before
action was taken. The Governor and the California Legislature pressed ahead in
2006 to sign the nation’s first major climate change mitigation legislation,
known as AB 32 . Now AB 32 will soon be implemented across industries and even in local
communities through follow-up legislation such as the regulation known
as SB 375, the nation’s first statewide
regulatory attempt to limit suburban and exurban sprawl. Meanwhile, opponents
of AB 32, are gearing up for 2010 gubernatorial elections, claiming AB 32 will
cost the state $143 billion in auction taxes alone. Whatever happens
next, California is being looked on by the Obama Administration and world
leaders as the pace setter in climate change mitigation with its aggressive automotive
fuel standards
,
green building standards and AB 32′s goal of reducing
greenhouse gases 80% over 1990 levels by 2050.

7.       Film: An Inconvenient Truth

Date: May, 2006

inconvenient.jpginconvenient.jpginconvenient.jpg

Released in Summer 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, An Inconvenient Truth made the debate on
climate change public. The documentary, which was actually just a series of
lectures and slideshows that former Vice President Al Gore was giving around
the world, hit a nerve. Despite “action scenes” that consisted of Gore either
1.) riding up elevators or 2.) riding down escalators, the film created a major
public buzz and introduced the subject of climate change to popular culture. An
Inconvenient Truth
received an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Documentary
and went on to set records for box office revenues in its category. An Inconvenient Truth offered very few
solutions, suggesting compact fluorescent bulbs and little more. This critical
learning opportunity was finally addressed when Gore released a follow-up book
in 2009, A Plan to Solve the Climate
Crisis
.

8.       Book:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Date:
May, 2006

sum08_omnivores_dilemma.jpg

 

Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made clear the benefits of sustainable
agriculture and food production, and even foraging or killing your own food:
it’s healthier for people, animals, farmers, the land and nature. The ongoing
popularity of this book has helped create a demand for sustainably raised food
that has out-paced supply. The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
patiently outlined what is wrong with industrial agriculture and
livestock production, where highly subsidized ingredients such as high fructose
corn syrup have become a surplus commodity to be forced upon products or
animals in order to reduce the price of ingredients, without regard to health
(diabetes, reduced nutrition). I had the good fortune of meeting Angelo Garro,
the Italian forager, now based in Northern California who was profiled in the
last half of the book. As we traded notes on wild huckleberry picking one
afternoon at a friend’s orchard party, he was pulling off some strips of meat from a boiled
carcass. When the sun went down most were unknowingly eating a jack rabbit that
Angelo had shot in the orchard a few hours before–it had made its way into a
delicious bolognese pasta sauce.

9.       Design:
Masdar City, First Planned Net-Zero Carbon City

Time Period: 2006-2017

Masdar-HQ-2.jpg

 

Masdar will be a 50,000-person city based on applied sustainability
research and technology that is being developed in Abu Dhabi, United
Arab Emirates. While other cities have been planned to be net-zero carbon
(Dongtan, China, which is not being developed because of local corruption and
other issues), Masdar
has been one of the few net-zeros that appear to be proceeding as planned. With
financial partners Credit Suisse, Siemens and General Electric, Masdar is also
backed by the city-state of Abu Dhabi, as well as technology partners from the
UK and Spain. The complex is being used for cutting-edge research in: renewable
energy (including dozens of active and passive solar and wind technologies), water
conservation technologies that can distill drinking water from ambient moisture
both indoors (sweat) and outdoors (dew), as well as local urban food production
schemes. In fall 2009, the Masdar Institute of Technology opened, in conjunction with
MIT, where students get degrees in engineering,  material sciences, IT, water and the
environment, all with a relationship to the real world demonstration projects
taking root in the city that in Arabic means “the source.”

asiacities.jpg

10.   Future
Trend: Mega-growth of Unregulated Asian Cities + Mega Drought

Time
Period: 2009-2030

Between now and 2027 Asian Cities will account for more
than half of the world’s greenhouse gas increases,
according to a study by the Asian Development Bank.
From Mumbai to Beijing, cities will add a projected 1.8 billion people over the next two
decades; they are almost entirely unregulated in their growth, carbon
management and environmental impacts, despite some new siloed attempts to
manage their industries, power production and energy efficiency. The daunting
challenge is that no regulatory structure exists to monitor this collection of Asian mega-cities,
despite the fact that many of these cities has or will have populations of 10-20 million individuals. This megagrowth began
around the beginning of the 00′s, when Asian urban population was at 1.4
billion. Asia is projected to have about 3 billion urbanites by 2030.

Water is the first epic Asian city resource
crisis. The Tibetan Plateau, source of most of the region’s major
sources of fresh water (including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges,
Irrawaddy and the Indus rivers) has been experiencing a seven percent loss of
glaciers on an annual basis, according to a report released last week (pdf) at the
Copenhagen climate conference. 

Beijing has been hit especially
hard by a ten-year drought (pdf): the city of 17 million has enough water for only 14
million. Beijing has been forced to procure
water from surrounding agricultural regions and rapidly diminishing groundwater, while some cities in India have
completely run out of water during periods of drought over the past decade.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy
consultancy. He is
a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

Share