Tuesday, June 26, 2012

After Rio - Grassroots

Frances G. Beinecke, President of the NRDC and Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice, summarized in an NYT Op-Ed that the lack of representation and agreement at the Rio+20 summit wrapping up on June 21 leaves a vacuum that must be dealt with at the grassroots level:

Collectively, we must force our government leaders and our corporations to do what is right for our planet and its resources. We must press them to implement the commitments they made at Rio+20, and the commitments they made in other international agreements as well. And we must hold them accountable when they don’t. As we learned at Rio+20, government negotiators and thick documents can’t save the planet. But as we also learned, we can, and we must do it now.

A further report-out from Rio is posted here on Reuters. In a nutshell, over 120 nations signed off on general sustainable development goals.

What's being left out of all of these positions is that the fundamental methodologies aren't changing, even though there are resources and funding pledges to the third-world countries. The old technologies and approaches are not being revised to account for the Natural Capital methodology which uses grids and hubs of smaller projects integrated with natural ecosystems. For example, International Rivers points out on June 19 that the World Bank must revise their development strategy and implement a series of small ecosystem improvements instead of the large, destructive projects they have insisted on funding:

 Recent reports have signaled that new renewable technologies are approaching grid parity and will be more effective in meeting the world's energy needs. A 2010 World Bank report found that 65 million people in Africa will gain access to safe and clean lighting through solar by 2015, while a 2012 Bloomberg New Energy Finance report stated that grid-connected photovoltaics in Africa have already become competitive. The International Energy Agency has stated that the energy needs of 70% the world's rural poor could be met by investment in small, decentralized infrastructure technologies.

International Rivers' report finds that the majority of rural poor live closer to local sources of renewable energy and water than to an electric grid and centralized irrigation systems. As a result, decentralized projects that address the needs of the poor directly are more effective at promoting broad-based economic growth and reducing poverty than grid expansion and construction of centralized mega-projects. Small-scale energy and water projects can also strengthen climate resilience, reduce the social and environmental footprint of the infrastructure sector, and strengthen democratic control over essential public services.

Large infrastructure lending has regained focus as world leaders search for ways to stimulate growth. The World Bank has recently indicated it will return to large infrastructure lending, having issued its own new infrastructure strategy in 2011. International Rivers' report calls on Jim Yong Kim, who will take office as the World Bank's new President in July, to replace the institution's top-down approach to infrastructure with a strategy that prioritizes the needs of the poor.

 So, lacking leadership in this issue - particularly from the USA, Germany and Britain - as well as a framework for drastically reducing carbon emissions immediately, the outlook appears bleak for true regenerative processes. One can only hope that these grassroots efforts can ultimately prevail over the iron grip of corporate and Wall Street malfeasance, rather than allow these entities to dress it up as "sustainable growth". This only leads to the inevitable predicted collapse.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Basics - Water

Inextricably linked, water and power are the fundamental utility systems of every city in the country. Virtually every source of electricity in a typical American home or manufacturing plant - whether it comes from hydroelectricity, coal, natural gas, nuclear, biofuels, or even concentrated solar -- also requires lots of water. City utilities are the foundation of urban infrastructure, which is aging and in need of serious maintenance and repair in order to supply the built environment we already have. This points to a critical need for new kinds of models, both for providing energy and financing these new projects.

In California, we're in a bit of a trap because the existing water supplies are already overtapped, which means we're limited in power production and supplies. Our changing climate is increasing the drought conditions which reduce the previously reliable water supplies, so there's no reserve water supplies with which to produce additional power if the state's population continues to grow (map here). A renewed urban infrastructure is one approach to capturing the natural processes in our habitation areas that were previously driven by city water and power departments. Technologies like permeable pavements and rain gardens can capture, naturally treat and filter stormwater back into the ground, preventing overflows and reducing reliance on treatment centers. This can be done for far less cost than the old existing infrastructure. This involves UnPaving a lot of concrete and asphalt, as well as restoring landscape in industrial infill areas, known as "brownsfields".

Alternative energy supply development in the western United States is another viable option that's already underway. Solar power supply is a natural for the hot, dry desert areas that were previously degraded by wartime military operations. Geothermal sources are an additional well-established means of generating power from existing natural processes.

The water equation is crucial, so planning for natural system restoration provides about the only option in the balance of water and power. Hopefully this approach will take place as the State of California plans its future strategies aligned with a natural capital approach.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Shrinking Pie

The contentious climate change debate about reversing the human impact on the globe resolves into three basic issues: energy demand and carbon emissions, resource depletion and global ecological deterioration, and air/water resources compromised by pollution and sewage. The fundamental driver of all of these problems is the simple and obvious fact that the human population has exceeded the ability of the planet to support this level of consumption, and so it's the prime controlling factor in reducing human impact on global ecology and focus on its restoration. There's no other path; Malthus is right. The Mechanical Engineers in the UK have summarized this succinctly.

After thousands of years of unfettered human expansion, we've hit the wall. Humanity has to develop a different paradigm than endless growth and the rape-pillage-and-burn approach to extracting materials, energy and resources, which represents the current corporate push to "grow". Changing this requires a different kind of accounting system and a shift in values. Key to this is reversing the equation with respect to population levels, done in an intelligent fashion. This immediately raises the specter of overarching bureaucracy, violation of individual rights and invasion of privacy. These reactions are valid if governmental control is used indiscriminately to abuse individuals on the basis of reactionary, brute-force methods. But there's a better way, through consensus.

Interestingly, this consensus can be forged out of the current blowback to the UN protocols that have engendered the "smart growth" strategies for urban development. In the US, the state of Alabama has just outlawed this approach in order to protect private property from eminent domain and undercut pollution controls and ecological preservation; it has effectively prohibited the UN Agenda 21. The Agenda 21 document says the world is one world; that its resources are finite; that environmental problems in one country affect its neighbors and the world at large; that over-population imposes a great strain on the world's finite resources; that a concerted, global response is more likely to be effective than a disjointed one; and that every nation had to find its own way to live up to the resolution. Further discussion of this political impact is here in an article from Huffpo.

If it's understood that development must be curtailed, as do the scientists who most recently stepped up to take a public position, then a very obvious way to preserve our remaining open lands, natural areas, lakes, rivers, oceans and forests is to relieve population pressure. You can't have both, there's a limit to the budget, it's very simple. So a global public policy needs to be leveraged in a way that preserves the quality of life and the natural resources in all countries at the same time as it rewards negative population growth. There's many positive ways to accomplish this, as the Sierra Club points out.

In terms of a global agreement that allows countries to preserve their natural resources and individual freedoms, it is necessary to establish a baseline population standard that gives incentives for people to preserve their way of life in a manner that regenerates their land resources, hence their wealth. Self-interest in happiness and abundance for individuals is then governed by limitations on population through public policy and taxation measures that make it clear that lower populations will benefit all of society and provide the necessities of life for everyone. One way this can be accomplished is laid out here.

An agreement around these issues, hopefully during Rio+20 this month (download a draft here), is imminently needed before Nature collapses the pie for all of us.

A Real-Time Map of Births and Deaths
This simulation gives an eerily omniscient vantage on the world as it fills.