Top 10 Green Theme Stories of 2010

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

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. 



Urban Resilience for Dummies, Part 2: Failing the Milk Test


Last post I covered some guiding principles for urban resilience
in the face of climate change and diminishing resources (especially
fresh water and oil). Considering these guidelines, what aspect of U.S. metro
development stands out as the most ill-advised and risky? Short answer: exurban

If the “Great Recession” taught us anything, it is that allowing the
unrestrained sprawl of energy-inefficient communities and infrastructure is a
now-bankrupt economic development strategy and constitutes a recipe for
continued disaster on every level.

“Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car
commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive,” was the
warning the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers gave institutional and commercial real
estate investors in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report.

I make the further case that the exurban economic model is an outright
anachronism in the Post Carbon Institute’s Post
Carbon Reader
, which comes out this summer from the University of
California Press and Watershed Media.

Much of US “economic growth” in the 1990s
and early 2000s was based on the roaring engine of exurban investment speculation
with gas at historic record low prices. That bubble popped on the spike of $4 a
gallon; we now are paying the piper with abandoned tract developments,
foreclosed strip malls and countless miles of roads to nowhere. Gas prices are forecast to head over $3 this summer, and likely much higher when a forecast global “oil crunch” hits by 2014 or so. 

Besides the economic risks, circa-twentieth-century sprawl has
destroyed valuable farmland, sensitive wildlife habitat, and irreplaceable
drinking water systems at great environmental, economic, and social cost. We
can no longer manage and develop our communities with no regard for the limits
of natural resources and ecological systems that provide our most basic needs.

A shining alternative is metropolitan areas that have begun to plan
for the future by building their resilience with economic, energy, and
environmental uncertainty in mind: top U.S. metro locations include Portland,
Oregon, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Denver, and suburbs such as Davis, California and Alexandria,
Virginia. These communities are employing some of the following key strategies
that underpin resilient urbanism:

Build and re-build
denser and smarter

Most U.S.
suburban and urban population or use densities need to be increased so that
energy-efficient transportation choices like public transit, bicycling and
walking can flourish. Multi-modal mobility cannot succeed at the densities
found in most American suburban communities today. Increasing density doesn’t
have to mean building massive high-rises: adding just a few stories on existing
or new mixed-use buildings can double population density–and well-designed,
increased density can also improve community quality of life and economic

Focus on water use efficiency and

Our freshwater supply is one of our most vulnerable resources in the
United States. Drought is no longer just a problem for Southwestern desert
cities–communities in places like Texas, Georgia and even New Jersey recently
had to contend with water shortages. As precipitation patterns become less
reliable and underground aquifers dry up, more communities will need to
significantly reduce water demand through efficiency, conservation,
restrictions and “tiered pricing,” which means a basic amount of water will be
available at a lower price; above average use will become increasingly
expensive the more that is used.

Global climate change is already thought to be melting mountain
snowpack much earlier than average in the spring, causing summer and fall water
shortages. This has serious planning and design implications for many metro
areas. For example, Lake Mead, which provides 90% of the water used by Las
Vegas (above photo) and is a major water source for Phoenix and other Southwestern cities
, has a projected
50% chance
of drying up for water storage by 2021.

Focus on food

Urban areas need to think much bigger and plan systemically for significantly
increased regional and local food production. Growing and processing more food
for local consumption bolsters regional food security and provides jobs while
generally reducing the energy, packaging and storage needed to transport food
to metro regions. In Asia and Latin America–even in big cities like Shanghai,
China; Havana, Cuba; and Seoul, South Korea–there are thriving small farms
interspersed within metro areas.

Gardens–whether in backyards, community parks, or in and on top of
buildings–can supplement our diets with fresh local produce. Denver’s suburbs, for instance, have organized to preserve and cultivate unsold
tract home lots for community garden food production.

Think in terms of
inter-related systems

If we view our urban areas as living, breathing entities–each with a
set of basic and more specialized requirements–we can better understand how to
transform our communities from random configurations into dynamic,
high-performance systems. The “metabolism” of urban systems depends largely on
how energy, water, food and materials are acquired, used and, where possible,
reused. From these ingredients and processes (labor, use of knowledge) come products,
services, and–if the system is efficient–minimal waste and pollution

Communities and regions should decide among themselves which
initiatives reduce their risks and provide the greatest “bang for the buck.”
Like the emergence of Wall Street’s financial derivatives crisis in 2007, if we
are kept in the dark about the potential consequences of our planning, resource
and energy use in light of climate change or energy shortages, future
conditions will threaten whole regional economies when they emerge.

Imagine if
Las Vegas informed its residents and tourists on one 120-degree summer day that
they would not be able to use a swimming pool or shower, let alone golf,
because there simply wasn’t any water left.
Odds are that the days are
numbered for having one’s own swimming pool and a large, lush ornamental lawn
in the desert Southwest, unless new developments and desert cities are planned
with water conservation as having the highest design priority. 

By thinking of urban areas as inter-related systems economically
dependent on water, energy, food and vital material resources, communities can
begin to prepare for a more secure future. Merely developing a list of topics
that need to be addressed–the “checklist” approach–will not prepare regional
economies for the complexity of new dynamics, such as energy or water supply
shortages, rising population, extreme energy price volatility and accelerating
changes in regional climate influenced by global climate change.

Next Steps? Time to fold the climate action plan into a resilience action plan, so
communities can addresses not only global climate change emissions, but also
more urgent economic risks posed by climate change adaptation and resource

Warren Karlenzig is president
of Common Current, an
internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author
How Green is Your
City? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon