You are Here (The Bailout Meets Climate Cange, pt. 2)

The two biggest systems in the world, one that we made (the economy) and one that made us (the biosphere) are both staggering. An amazing amount of government money is looking for a way to fix the economy; but no one is quite sure how to do it. The head of the IPCC has warned that the credit crisis could block the road to dealing with climate change (itself just the capstone of an interlinked set of ecological problems that range from biodiversity loss to desertification).

This is par for the course, considering that we have a prooven record of opposing the economy to the environment as if some how you had to choose between them. But, like once accepted wisdom about the self-regulating power of the market, this could be the day where we let go of that old fight to look for something new.

What if we could use one problem to solve the other? What if all the problems and inefficiencies that we've built up over the years could actually be what saves us economically – and what if our need to rethink the economy could be the chance we've been waiting for the fundamentally change a system that has had us burning through fuel, through species and through ecosystems at record rates? What we know about the environmental situation is pretty dire, and no one seems quite sure what we know about the economy these days – but, for a few paragraphs, let's pretend that we can do it. What would that look like?

People have talked about the wheels having come off the economy. George Soros, a savvy financier and no stranger to making money, is closer to the mark. It's not the wheels, it's the motor that's the problem. Risky mortgages where simply the last gasp of an era where American consumer spending drove everything from record profits on Wall Street, to China's rapid industrialization (in fact, we spent so much that they had to lend us more money so we could keep spending).

With the US now definitively in a recession, that motor has driven us our last mile. Today's report on plummeting US consumer confidence is just one more indication that something different needs to power our economies. A gathering of voices, including Soros, columnist Thomas Friedman, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman have an answer – we go green.

But what does that mean? I'm not going to give a breathless ode to the investment opportunities in solar startups. Technology? Sure. But primarily it has to do with changing the way we make decisions. What it doesn't mean, for example, is building more highways – something already on the table following an earlier bailout of the highway fund. That worked great in the 30s – but a lack of highways is not our problem.

If we want a target for government spending that will create employment and buoy the economy what we need are transportation systems. Hybrid cars a great, but the auto industry isn't going to drive this recovery: economic or environmental. It would take years for each individual automobile owner to make the switch to more efficient vehicles.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a demand for alternatives – especially with gas the way it has been and where it is likely to return. If you have got a car in the driveway (and are probably increasingly worried about making your payments) you aren't going to rush down to the dealership to trade it in for something even more expensive. But chances are you'd leave it in the driveway if there was comfortable bus service at you street corner and good commuter trains servicing your region.

The demand for public transportation continues to grow in both Canada and the United States. With almost 30% of our emissions coming from transportation, it is a big ticket item for reducing emissions. Expanding or establishing transit systems can be a source of well paid jobs for everyone from machinists to train conductors. Also, if you match good transportation systems with land use planning we can shift away from the sprawling bedroom communities that have locked us into wasteful (and soul-crushing) daily commutes.

This isn't about technological breakthroughs. It's about using things familiar to all of us to build more livable communities. (Incidentally, it seems that homes well serviced by transit and within walking distance of shops and services have weathered the current collapse with much more of their value intact.) This is an example of the kind of solutions we need: ones that we can start now and that create more solutions, not more problems, for us down the line.

As we've seen in these past few weeks, getting things rolling in a time when private money is skittish requires government involvement. But beyond traditional infrastructure projects (the bread and butter of the economic recovery of the 30s), we are surrounded by opportunities for investment, employment and emissions reductions that we haven't managed to reach because they are split up across multiple private owners.

So far most of these have fallen into the value/action abyss that we call “collective action problems.” Private buildings are a perfect example of this. Even getting people to change their light bulbs has been hard. Try to get everyone to carry out basic but effective efficiency renovations to all buildings in the country and you'll find that people will only go so far on their own.

As well as providing capital, governments (federal, regional, and local) are in a position to spur action. “Taxes, regulations or incentives?” That pretty much summarizes the approaches that governments have considered so far. But they are in a position to do more. What if, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, cites brokered funding to retrofit all private buildings? At that scale the aggregated costs would be at a level where the municipality could attract private capital. Efficiency would become just another utility funded through bonds or other sources of capital that are happy with a secure 5 % to 6% return on investment. The city in turn repays the investments from the energy savings that result from the efficiency improvements.

And homeowners? They pay nothing other than the inconvenience of having the work done. For the first 10 to 20 years they get a percentage of the savings, and from that point on the savings are theirs in full. All property owners would by default be included in the program, but could opt out.

Plans like this are already being put in place by some American cities. But that's not the end of the road. We don't have the workforce to do retrofits on this scale. Government training agencies have a role to play in training the workers needed for this new economy. In Portland, for example, it would mean an extra 1,500 full time jobs for the next 20 years. The program would need about US$150million of investment per year. The savings would be more significant that just money off your monthly bill. Money that we don't spend on energy is money that stays in our local economies. Factor that in, and you are looking at a potential economic benefit on the order of US$500million. Not a bad deal.

Opportunities like this also exist in neighbourhood and city scale renewable energy grids. Which, incidentally would also be better equipped to withstand disruption by extreme weather events, or rising international energy prices. Transportation, and Housing represent 45% of US emissions and electricity related emissions represent a good portion of Housing, Commercial and Industrial emissions. The situation is similar in Canada, and these are also key sectors in EU. Apply a similar approach to international transportation and overall industrial emissions and we'd be off to a good start both economically and environmentally.

It sounds good, and influential voices talking about greening the bailout show that we may be about to start down that road. It will need public support, and partnerships between NGOs, Governments and business to put together the required skills, resources and jurisdictions. If an ambitious reorientation of our world toward efficiency is our goal, we have what we need to succeed. Whether pursuing efficiency is enough is a serious question.

But standing where we are right now, at the intersection of our economy and our environment, and feeling the ground moving beneath our feet we have an opportunity we have never had before. Right now, the possibility is there that we could rapidly start to reduce the impacts of decades of inefficient development, and build communities, and countries that will be livable and resilient homes for us in the future.

Even in these extraordinary times, business as usual is still pulling us away from this path. There is a real possibility that we'll start doing what we know where are good at: trying to jump start consumer spending and building more highways. Those of us who care have to encourage, to support, and to demand that we start going down a better road.


Where Are We?( aka The Bailout Meets Climate Change)

It's time to take stock.

We've all been keeping track of the faltering pulse of the financial markets, and now understand more than we'd like about the fragility of the global financial system. But something else came up in September – another game-changer. Since 2000 we have been working in a world where the most widely used tallies of recent carbon emissions came from models – projections based on past trends continued into the future. They were the basis for key documents, like the 2006 Stern Review, that have guided climate politics and policy. They were also – we now know – way off.

Stern worked from the assumption that emissions were increasing at roughly 0.95% per year. New empirical data shows that emissions are in fact rising at more than two and a half times that speed.

That conclusion comes from a September report released by the Tyndall Centre, one of the UK's most respected climate change research institutes. Combing the best available data on emissions, they calculate that the actual rate of increase is closer to 2.4% per year. That's no small difference. Even more than in the markets, a few percentage points here can change the world.

What it means, in a nutshell, is that we are at – or beyond – the worst case scenarios proposed so far by any reputable source. If we've been comforting ourselves by thinking that we'll probably fall somewhere in the middle of the range, we need to realize that we won't.

On the lips of politicians and policy makers worldwide, 2 degrees Celsius has emerged as the consensus on how much warmer things can get in the next 100 years without causing real havoc. Anymore warming and our children and grandchildren will see really unpleasant consequences: dramatic flooding, increases in severe weather events that endanger both settlements and global food supplies, astounding biodiversity losses and major disruptions of national and global economies. To keep us below that point, the new Tyndall report concludes, emissions will have to level off in 2015, and then decrease globally by about 6% per year.

How do you make sense of those numbers? For comparison, that means reductions larger even than those that took place in Eastern Europe when the former-Soviet economy collapsed, and well beyond the reductions that resulted from the 40-fold increase in France's nuclear capacity over the past 25 years, or Britain's massive conversion from coal to gas-fired power plants. These are cuts we are unlikely to make.

Even levelling off by 2020, and keeping temperatures from rising more than 4dC, means rapid action in the short term, an “urgent decarbonization” of the world's energy systems, and cuts in the developed world that go beyond 6% so as to make room for increased emissions from developing nations. The report concludes that short of a “planned economic recession” it is unlikely that we will manage to meet even these reduced targets.

Well, the recession is here. And how we deal with it will have as much effect on climate change as it does on national economies around the world. To see positive change, we need to be working from where we really are – not where we wished we were. The early years of climate policy were defined by good intentions, eco-fashion and a broader cultural acceptance of environmental values. Pushed by our new understanding of the problem, and the opportunity presented by the need for concrete projects to support our economies we've entered a new phase. A phase that has to be defined by results. In the next post, I'll try to trace the outlines of what that might look like.

Welcome to Phase II.


Refugees From Your Own Backyard

A UK report has landed climate refugees back in the news with scenarios that include the establishment of settlements in the Antarctic to house those escaping mid-century disasters. This is not the first fantastical solution to the impacts of climate change I've covered (remember those floating titanium cities?). Visions of Polar cities adds a gloss of fantasy over a very real problem; estimates peg the number of people displaced by a 2 degree rise in temperature to be somewhere close to 200 million people, or about 3% of the World's population, by as soon as 2050.

This has been discussed in the media for some time, largely in terms of international flows of migrants from Small Island States or vulnerable coastal areas of countries like Bangladesh. But it was a surprise to hear officials in Portland (OR), where I'm doing research, talking about the city's own concerns: it's inter-regional, not international, displacements, that they are worried about. More than one official here has pointed out that with recurring extreme droughts in Georgia and increasingly severe forest fires in California, the Pacific Northwest may soon find itself as a prime destination for homegrown environmental refugees.

These would be movements of people that would outclass and outlast those that resulted from hurricane Katrina. They would be not so much temporary escape as permanent resettlement, and people in Portland are starting to consider what that would mean for their region's development. There was an excellent article in The Oregonian a few weeks ago covering the story. The specifics of Portland's case aside, the city is clearly not unique. In countries, like the United States, whose regions have varying exposure to climate change the impacts of internal migration on urban development will be considerable. For many cities who have only just begun to consider how they will adapt to climate change, this adds a further and even more unpredictable variable to the mix.

One of the larger debates around calling environmentally displaced people "refugees" is whether or not it weakens the standing of people seeking protection from political persecution. The rights of political refugees are increasingly coming into question and it would be a bitter pill if the practice of using the term to emphasise the seriousness of climate change ended up further watering down our commitments to other kinds of refugees. By calling them refugees we are in fact aguing that the principles of care and protection which we currenlty extend for political grounds need to be expanded - not cut back. It is also worth asking -- in a time where natural disasters uproot more people than war -- if our failure to reduce emissions isn't infact a form of persecution.

Calling them "refugees" also frames the problem as an international one. It's now clear that it is also a regional and municipal one. How cities will address it will be an issue to watch in the coming years. What will be do when we have more refugees coming from both far away, and close to home? And, the question that is top of mind here in Portland, where will the money come from to build all the infrastructure we are going to need? Read more...

Electric Cars: Public Private Plugins

With the Canadian election over, the American electoral debates wrapped up, and our shock at the financial collapse under control... it's time to uncover some of the interesting stories that may have gotten lost in the shuffle. One of those is that this Fall has seen some significant steps toward building infrastructure to support electric car use in major (and some more minor) metropolises. Beginning with an announcement this summer by Portland General Electric , charge-points for electric cars are being installed in London, Westminster and Coventry in the UK, as well as Berlin and Tokyo.

So far electric cars have been held back, in part, by the lack of adequate and convenient infrastructure to support them. With electric vehicles slated to enter mass production in the 12 months in some countries, companies and municipalities have started to prepare for an expected wave of demand from consumers. The question of course is how to address both the costs and the risks of this kind of venture. The answer so far seems to be commercial partnerships. In both London and Berlin the impetus behind the programs has come from collaborations between large auto-manufacturers (Toyota and Daimler) and large power utilities (French owned EDF and German RWE). In Tokyo it is the Tokyo Electric Power Company which is readying itself to support cars produced by Japanese manufacturers Mitsubishi and Subaru – set for release sometime this year.

These are major players. EDF is the largest electricity utility in the world and and Tokyo EPC is the third largest. Clearly they are preparing themselves for a dramatically increased market as the world begins a transition away from fossil fuels. But is that transition really happening? Electricity, like Hydrogen, is a carrier of energy, not an energy source. The source of RWE's electricity in Germany (and many of its other European operations) is dominated by coal, and in 2007 renewables accounted for a grand total of 0.08% of EDF's British generation capacity.

Something else of note is the lack of action on the part of US automakers. Although Ford has delivered a small fleet to Southern California's major electricity utility, it is clear that European and Asian automotive and electricity companies are moving much more quickly to open up this market. The Portland initiative, for example, relies on a partnership between Portland General Electric (PGE) and a local electrified parking space company called Shorepower and is not linked to any specific automotive company. This seems unfortunate given that if electric cars are going to make a difference anywhere, it is going to be in the United States, where sprawling development patterns have locked large portions of the country into mobility problems not easily addressed by transit.

So even though it exciting to see action on this front, there are clearly some issue here if all we are doing is moving the source of emissions from cars inside European cities, to Coal plants in their hinterlands. One more inspiring bit of news comes from the fact that both PGE and RWE/Daimler have bigger plans for vehicle-to-grid technologies which would allow cars to feed power back into the grid if they are parked at peak times – as they are, for example, when commuters return home from work – and recharge over night when demand is low. This would help flatten the spikes in energy demand and stabilize the grid in a way that could open the door for more intermittent renewables like wind and solar.

If electric cars are to make a positive contribution, it will be as a bridge technology. They will allow us to reduce emissions associated with the choices we made in the past about how we live and work, while we retool the shape of settlement to center around walk-sheds, and transit. If used as a crutch to continue old patterns of development, or support fossil fuel based electricity generation we are in for a rough ride.



Thanks for the people at for pointing out that there are are also plugins on the books for San Jose and San Francisico. The EV site has excellent links for those looking for more on this issue.

And Treehugger reports that Greenpeace Germany has protested what the site calls the "nightmare of coal powered cars." "In fact, Greenpeace argues, running a car on diesel is cleaner than an electric car powered by coal-burning power plants, which do dominate Germany's generation capacities." The discussion there picks up the pros and cons of this argument. As always you have to keep your eye on the ball, which in this case is reducing emissions and changing mobility patterns, and make sure that the projects are aimed in the right direction.


Election 2008: Cities in the Parties' Platforms

Canadians concerned about our cities were doubtless disappointed by the Leaders Debate last week, and won't get much satisfaction from the long awaited Conservative platform that came out yesterday. It's not as if the Conservatives didn't have enough time to prepare: we've known about the seriousness of the infrastructure deficit since well before the last election, and during that campaign Harper was often accused of having a bias against cities. 
The fact that the new Conservative platform gives over more space to a photo of people standing in front of a campaign bus than to municipal issues will not do much to change that impression.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.