A bad day to be Canadian (again)

I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but last week Canada was roasted at the Commonwealth meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. Actually, there is even talk of suspending us from the Commonwealth entirely because our approach to climate change negotiations has been so destructive.

If all that sounds a bit strange to you, check out George Monbiot's most recent column over at the Guardian. He's put together a depressingly accurate summary of why we've lost our reputation as "Canada the Good."

The official Canadian position is that we are a small player, with little power and that we've got to wait for the US to act before we can design our own policies. As Monbiot's article sums up, the truth is that we are actually a very important player - at least diplomatically. Far from waiting to follow someone else's lead, we've been working hard to under cut climate negotiations since 2006. The full article is here and I've re-posted a few excerpts after the jump. [There also a CBC TV report along similar lines.]

"Here I am, [in Toronto this past weekend ] watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. Canada is slipping down the development ladder, retreating from a complex, diverse economy towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man. The price of this transition is the brutalisation of the country, and a government campaign against multilateralism as savage as any waged by George Bush."

"In 2006 the new Canadian government announced it was abandoning its targets to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto protocol. No other country that had ratified the treaty has done this. Canada was meant to have cut emissions by 6% between 1990 and 2012. Instead they have already risen by 26%."

"It is now clear that Canada will refuse to be sanctioned for abandoning its legal obligations. The Kyoto protocol can be enforced only through goodwill: countries must agree to accept punitive future obligations if they miss their current targets. But the future cut Canada has volunteered is smaller than that of any other rich nation. Never mind special measures; it won't accept even an equal share. The Canadian government is testing the international process to destruction and finding that it breaks all too easily. By demonstrating that climate sanctions aren't worth the paper they're written on, it threatens to render any treaty struck at Copenhagen void."

"After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world's 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th."

"In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada's obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth."

"In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it. But such is the fragile nature of climate agreements that one rich nation – especially a member of the G8, the Commonwealth and the Kyoto group of industrialised countries – could scupper the treaty. Canada now threatens the wellbeing of the world."


Climate Comix: Hipo Popo Pota & Tamo

I'm totally hooked on the editorial cartoons that run in Spain's El Pais newspaper. The cartoonist Ramon, in particular, runs a quirkly environmentally themed strip that is consistently wonderful. Who would have thought cute hippos, grumpy frogs and sinister alligators could be sharp! In the lead up to Copenhagen I'll be translating some of the best strips for those of you who don't read Spanish. You can find the originals here. (click on the strip for a bigger clearer image)

As a proud Canadian, I just wanted to point out as well that it was us who invented the trick of basing your targets on 2005 instead of 1990. Cool, no? Makes any target look that much bigger. Kind of like putting newspaper in your shoes to look taller. Good thing we've got some cartoons to help us keep things straight!

Double Warming: Urbanization, Climate Change and Global Health

For those of you in Montreal (where I've resently resettled), there is what looks like an interesting talk this Wednesday at McGill's Institute for Health and Social Policy.

The theme of their 2009-10 seminar series is "Sustainable Cities in a Changing Climate." This week's talk by Dr. Lea Berrang Ford is on urban health concerns and climate change. See all the details after the jump (or click on the poster to enlarge).

- From the press release:

The series continues with a talk by Dr. Lea Berrang Ford from The McGill Geography Department, entitled: “Double Warming: Urbanization, Climate Change and Global Health.” The talk will cover the effects of urbanization and climate change on public health by highlighting the recent trends of Malaria transmission in urban environments.

Location: IHSP Conference Room (1130 Pine ave West). Light snacks will be served.

Gaming the Future and Getting It Right: an interview with Dr. John Robinson

[This piece is also running over at worldchanging.com]
Dr. John Robinson,
one of the world's leading urban and regional sustainability experts, gave a great keynote address at a public policy conference hosted by the Trudeau Foundation in Ottawa last week (The Trudeau Foundation, which funds my research, is similar to the American Fullbright Program).

Dr. Robinson was part of the team that developed the interactive urban sustainability platform Metroquest (profiled earlier on WC ). He is also heading up the construction of UBC's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) and has been a Lead Author on the past three IPCC reports. I caught up with him after his talk for an interview on how to foster a shift to a sustainable urban society.

--"We have the Next Fifty Years to Build it Right."--

Alex Aylett: What is it about our current situation that makes smart sustainable urbanization so important?

John Robinson: Roughly speaking, the urban population of the planet will double in the next fifty years. This amounts to about a trillion dollars a year of infrastructure investment over the next decade or so (it is hard to project investment further into the future). After 2065 or so, global population growth (and thus the build-out of cities) is expected to level off.

This means we have the next fifty years to build it right, after that point it will all be about retrofitting – not building – our cities.. Retrofit is much more expensive and much less effective than building things right in the first place.

Every unsustainable piece of infrastructure we build is a 50-100 year mistake and makes it much harder to act sustainably. I think we should be focusing a lot of our attention on making sure that the annual trillion dollars of infrastructure investment is being spent on sustainable infrastructure.

AA: Polls in Canada and the US show that people care about climate change. But turning that concern into productive action hasn't been successful so far. How are efforts to get people to take action on climate change missing the mark?

JR: At the level of individual behaviour, much of the efforts to date have been based on the so-called 'information deficit' model of behaviour change. We assume that providing people with more information will change their behaviour.

But a lot of research in social psychology, social marketing, and what might be called applied cultural anthropology shows that this model is simply ineffective. At the collective level of policy change, a similar approach is often taken, and it is assumed that the provision of more and better science on, say, climate change impacts or the costs of mitigation, will lead decision-makers to change policy and investment decisions. That's also quite unsuccessful.

We need much more behaviourally nuanced and sophisticated approaches.

AA: So what's the alternative, if focusing on education and individual responsibility are more or less dead ends?

JR: The approach I'm interested in focuses on collective decision-making. I believe that the decisions that are really crucial have to do with collective decisions on issues like land use, urban form, density, transportation infrastructure and energy and water systems. These decisions are key because they have huge direct sustainability implications, and they also strongly constrain individual choices.

If we focus on these collective choices rather than changing individual behavior, the emphasis is on social mobilization processes intended to inform stakeholders about the trade-offs and consequences associated with different collective decisions. That approach both gets at the root of many sustainability problems, and gives policy makers a political constituency that supports changes to existing policy.

AA: Facilitating that kind of engagement with large scale policy choices (as opposed to changing light bulbs) is where your work on MetroQuest fits in. Tell us a bit about gaming the future... [check out Chicago's use of the MetroQuest platform for yourself.]

JR: At it's most basic, MetroQuest is an interactive gaming tool that allows people to create and explore scenarios of the future of their cities. It's a powerful way for them to to engage in discussion about the future and learn about the impacts of different choices on issues like landuse or transportation. It's also a way to collect views about the futures that people prefer -- information about preferences and choices that is much more useful than what can be provided by polls and surveys.

People react very positively – and very strongly – when they see detailed visualizations of the dramatic impacts of their choices on areas that they know and care about.

AA: What role does political leadership play in all of this?

JR: Simply holding MetroQuest workshops of course does not mean that the results will have any effect on real-world decisions, no matter how engaged people get. What is needed is processes that connect to actual decision-making processes.

This is quite tricky as few politicians or policy-makers will commit, in an open-ended way, to act on the results of processes they do not control and can’t predict, and which may or may not be representative of their constituents’ views.

There are two possible routes: first, engaging policy-makers actively in the design and development of such processes so they feel some ownership from the beginning (this has been done in projects in Europe); two, engaging a large enough fraction of the population in a given jurisdiction that they view as politically significant. This is the route we intend to pursue in the next few years.

AA: What other changes do we need to see to make a strong shift towards sustainability possible?

Linked to getting people to engage with collective decision making, there are also many many changes that can have powerful effects on the achievement of sustainability that don’t require changes in policy. Institutional rules, including codes, standards, job descriptions, performance evaluation criteria, assessment metrics, for example have a large effect on what decisions get made by organizations. Changing these rules can make an important contributing to really transformative social change.

As well – for better or worse – the private sector is also the locus of much of the behaviour that transforms our world. The focus here is on processes of commercialization and market transformation (not just government policy and regulation). The argument is that if it is in the economic interest of private sector organizations to invest in, produce, and market more sustainable products and services, then the market itself can become an engine of change in the direction of greater sustainability.

Electro-dub-ocalypse: fishing in NYC with DJ /Rupture

Rhyming nicely with the earlier post on illustrations of urban spaces redesigned by flooding and human adaptability, I stumbled on recent work by New York based DJ /Rupture. His new album Solar Life Raft, creates a disjointed dubby soundtrack for a future that's both dark and strangly joyous.

In an interview with New York Magazine he summed the album up as:

"a picture of New York 40 years in the future, where the water line is at the fourth story of buildings and the rich people are dry in the Catskills. Kids are making music on their cell phones and grilling octopi. So it’s postapocalyptic, but not necessarily grim." [take a look at the video for a taste.]

I really liked the music, although jagged electro-dub probably won't be everyones cup of java. But eyond the images and music, it's interesting that we are seeing these creative celebrations of human ingenuity and adaptability.

On the one hand you might say it's an artistic cop-out: an admission that we can't make the clouds go away, so we'd better start looking for silver lining. But if we are ever going to manage to create change, it's exactly these kinds of imaginative responses to difficult situations that we are going to need.

Now if we can just show a little bit of that ingenuity, adaptability and flexibility sooner rather than later, maybe we can fish octopi from the first floor, rather than the fourth...

Images of A Flodded City : NYC & Tokyo

NYC architecture firm Studio Lindfors has released a lushly rendered vision of massively flodded New York and Tokyo streets. The series of images [flickr] is part of what the firm calls their "speculative" works. (Which have previously included populations of nomadic cloud skippers and blimp shelters for hurricaine survivors.)

What hooked me about these images, other than their beautiful details (click images to see larger), are the way they side-step the apocalyptic. Sure, the city is under 10 meters of water, but life continues to evolve and adapt. The city is still vibrant and alive (maybe more so), even if it is dramatically changed. In one of my favourites a pedestrian crosses a make-shift foot bridge above rows of crops, below a dog waits to pounch on a trio of geese.Wheat has been planted in a parking tower in the background and roofgarden forests sprout over head.

It's a different future, frightening but at the same time appealing -- certainly not helpless or devastated. The whole project makes a great pushing off point for musings about how human adaptability will make use of the climate modified urban spaces of the late 21st C.

Align Center

Bike-onomy: Cycling in Your Local Economy

What's the value of cycling to your local economy? That's a question I've been thinking about since stumbling across a report that peg's Portland's cycling related economic activity at US$90 million for 2008 (click image to enlarge). When I started poking around, I found a collection of other similar stats for other areas.

This is really just the stub of an article that I'll be developing more for next week. I wanted to ask anyone reading out there who has some info on the bike economy in their area (especially, but not only, if you live outside the USA) to post something in the comments field, or send me a note at alex.aylett[at]gmail dot com. Read more...

Urban Forests Key to International Climate Responses

A study released yesterday [press release ] by Georgia Tech planning Professor Brian Stone recommends planting millions of trees to create extensive new urban forests as a key part of international climate response plans. That's one conclusion of his look at the climatic impacts of deforestation and urbanization.

Stone's key finding is that:

Across the U.S. as a whole, approximately 50 percent of the warming that has occurred since 1950 is due to land use changes (usually in the form of clearing forest for crops or cities) rather than to the emission of greenhouse gases.

That offers a strong argument for recognizing how key land use is to responding to climate change. It's also a call to recognize the importance of local governments:

As we look to address the climate change issue from a land use perspective, there is a huge opportunity for local and state governments...Presently, local government capacity is largely unharnessed in climate management structures under consideration by the U.S. Congress. Yet local governments possess extensive powers to manage the land use activities in both the urban and rural areas.

Coming a few weeks before the Copenhagen negotiations, this is a well timed report. Both land use related emissions and local governments have been slowly acquiring a greater profile in international climate change negotiations.

Strangely, most reports on the study are running under the title "Reducing Greenhouse Gases May Not Be Enough to Slow Climate Change." Eye-catching, sure. But not really accurate. The real strength of this report seems to be (I say seems because the full text is yet to appear on the publisher's site) that it has put solid, nationally specific, numbers behind an argument that has long been made about the importance of local land use planning.

And did I mention that green streets aren't bad looking either? (image: treecanada.ca)

Our Choice: A Review

Our Choice is as much a reference book as a call to action. In an unexpected poem (Al Gore writes poetry!?) that closes the introduction to the new book, he writes: "The Hour of choosing has arrived / Here are your tools." The tools he offers in the four hundred pages that follow are a detailed and lushly illustrated look at the solutions to the climate crisis, and the social and political barriers that are standing in our way.

Like the moon mission or the civil rights struggle, these are challenges that can bring out the best in all of us and make possible rapid and fundamental changes. As those examples suggest, Our Choice is also a call for the United States to regain faith in its ability to create positive change. But even for non-American readers, like myself, the book contains a wealth of information on what is possible.

Renewable Abundance
Most greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to our use of fossil fuels, and energy is the core of Gore's analysis. Reading his account of Solar, Wind and Geothermal it's hard to understand why we are still at such an early stage of the shift to green energy. For one thing, there is just so much of it:

-- Geothermal resources globally are equal to 280,000 times the annual consumption of primary energy in the world. Accessible geothermal in the United States is equivalent to a 30,000 year supply of energy at current rates of consumption.

-- Available wind resources in the US are equal to ten times annual American electricity consumption.

-- "Even taking into account all of the technical difficulties in capturing and using solar energy, it would take only seven days' worth of sunlight hitting the earth to meet the annual energy needs of the planet."

Also – while peaking petrol supplies will drive oil prices higher – renewables are only going to get cheaper. Technological advances have already cut the cost of renewable power technology. Once a real economy of scale develops, Gore argues, they will come down even faster. It will be Moore's Law all over again, only for energy this time, not computing power. Bundled in with all this are the millions of jobs that can be created building new smart grids, installing local decentralized renewables, and retrofitting existing homes and buildings.

Missing the Mark
So what gives? America, he makes plain, is lagging. It is being held back by inconsistent federal policies and regulations, and incentives that come and go depending on the price of oil and the politics of the White House. A brief lead resulting from efforts following the 1970s oil crisis has been squandered, and by comparison even China comes out looking pretty good (especially for developing solar industries and smart grids).

He points to the success of state level policies, like those in California, that require utilities to supply a certain percentage of renewable electricity. But these are not enough. It is time to correct the market and put a proper price on carbon through either cap and trade or a carbon tax. ( Although there is strangely little discussion of the carbon markets that are already up and running in the US out of Chicago and along the Eastern seaboard.) Not doing comes at great economic risk.

The Subprime Carbon Bubble
He draws an analogy here to the recent collapse of the subprime mortgage market: "We now have several trillion dollars' worth of subprime carbon assets owned by individuals, pension funds, and other institutional investors in the form of companies whose value is artificially inflated by dishonest misrepresentations concerning the need to sharply curtail the burning of carbon fuels .... [When] the appropriate actions are taken to curtail emissions have begun, the oil and coal "bubbles" are likely to burst. The long we wait, the bigger those bubbles will grow." All the more reason to begin the shift now, build an economy based on renewables and put a price on carbon to spur economic and technological innovation and an environmental recovery.

Power of Us
Beyond his business plan for the future, Gore offers an account of the multi-million dollar effort to mislead the public on climate change that will make your blood boil. The unified and successful campaign of American automakers and oil companies to shift media coverage and public perception on the issue is more than shameful. (ExxonMobil, for example, offering $10,000 a pop for any papers disputing the scientific consensus on climate change.)

But he uses this story about a public mislead to segue into a discussion of the strength of the internationally linked grassroots movements that have sprung up to fight for action: "The lesson we should take from looking at the way carbon polluters hijacked the political process on global warming is that grassroots activism is essential to building a base of support strong enough to overcome well-funded opposition. That is the political task at hand for anyone who wants to be part of the solution to the climate crisis."

Our Choice
The one most welcome difference between this book and it's precursor - An Inconvenient Truth – is the recognition that this is about more than policy, politics and energy. In it's closing sections, Our Choice points out that we are all far more than consumers. It draws our attention to the truly meaningful connections that we have with each other and our environment, whether those links are based on spirituality, community, or family. It is the strength of those ties, and the collective action that they make possible, that will allow us to successfully face down this challenge. But it is also from the strength of those ties, and the deep meaning that they hold for all of us, that we will find the resolve and motivation that we need to create truly fundamental change.

This combination of almost encyclopedic coverage of the science, technology and politics of climate change with a deeply felt call to action makes for a strange read at times. But the book provides much of the information needed to turn passion and commitment into effective action. Action that goes beyond changing light bulbs to changing laws. For a concerned public often left asking “but what can we do?” Our Choice answers “a whole lot, and we'd better start now.”


Al Gore on Letterman: "I'd Vote for An Asteroid"(Video)

Here is the video that I promised in my earlier post on Al Gore's appearance on Letterman. (Thanks MrPiratte) It get's interesting around minute 4.


Oil and Ice Tour: Are we giving up ice for oil?

[Just got word of this speaking tour that will be travelling Canada from Coast to Coast this month.]

Join two of Canada's leading authors for a discussion about the choices that will determine the future of Canada's Arctic, and what we can learn from the tar sands.

WWF-Canada is proud to host the cross-Canada speaking tour of award-winning authors Andrew Nikiforuk (Tar Sands) and Ed Struzik (The Big Thaw). Join them this fall as they discuss how the melting of Arctic sea ice and the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands are connected, and how they are shaping Canada's future. WWF aims to stimulate debate among Canadians about the choices and consequences – political, cultural, economic and environmental – involved in how we develop the tar sands and respond to a changing Arctic.

Join us in a city near you between November 4-20, 2009. See here for more information about dates and locations. Read more...

Changing A City: Inside Portland's 80% by 2050 target

[Worldchanging.com is running an interview that I did with the Deputy Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. See the full post at worldchanging or reposted below.]

Last week the City of Portland and Multnomah County jointly passed one of North America's most ambitious Climate Change Action Plan (CAP), which commits the city and county to reducing their overall emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Portland has been a leading city on climate change policy since 1993, when it became the first city adopt a strategy to reduce carbon emissions. It is also the only North American city that has managed to reduce its emissions below 1990 levels (despite an 18 percent growth in population). Nonetheless, the plan opens with the sobering point that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from local climate protection work to date is the frank recognition that our good work...is not nearly enough.” (A familiar mia culpa, well in line with how serious things have gotten.)

What follows in the rest of the 70 page plan (pdf) is an example of what it might look like if cities truly take sustainability seriously. The plan is packed with useful information and strategy. You can find more complete review here.

The standout element is the way the city has positioned itself to facilitate a broad shift that extends well past what it controls directly. This is much more than leading by example. Through a combination of educational programs, public consultations, economic development planning and the coordination of financial incentives, the municipality is leading change across the city as a whole. To find out more, I caught up with Deputy Director of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Micheal Armstrong via e-mail.

Alex Aylett: Early municipal climate action plans, both in North America and in Europe, tended to focus on things that the municipal government controlled directly: street lighting, municipal buildings, landfill sites, etc. Portland's new CAP, on the other hand, really is an action plan for the whole city. Tell me a bit about that more ambitious approach to municipal sustainability.

Micheal Armstrong: Since 1993 Portland’s climate-protection work has consistently included both its own operations and community-wide emissions. Our operations represent about one percent of total local emissions, so there’s a modest but real opportunity to achieve meaningful reductions. We clearly need to be making the same prudent investments in efficiency and renewables that others are making.

But our ability to set policy and to invest in infrastructure is a much more powerful lever in influencing local carbon emissions. We have an important role in shaping the overall form of the community -- which is perhaps the single most significant factor in emissions, as well as in integrating transportation systems, enforcing the building code, and regulating garbage and recycling collection, among many other thing.

AA: All true. But this goes beyond good land-use planning. Renewable energy and efficiency gains in private homes and commercial buildings, for example, make up 29 percent of the city's planned GHG reductions. "Food choice" (something significant that never makes it into municipal policy) accounts for another 10 percent.

Often cities avoid things that they can't directly regulate. You've gone a very different route. How has the city approached targets that can't be met solely through regulation?

MA: In the Climate Action Plan we prioritized actions the City of Portland or Multnomah County could either take ourselves or strongly influence, while at the same time trying to identify the full range of potential options for reducing emissions. If we do not put issues like food choice or how much stuff we consume on the list, it makes it that much more difficult — and expensive — to reduce emissions, since we’re limiting our options for where we can make reductions.

Food is a good example, too, where historically local governments have not had much of a direct role. We see that changing. Last year, for example, we provided gardening and food-related classes to more than 700 local residents, and we expect even more participants this year.

We’re also actively reviewing our code to address ways in which it makes it more difficult to grow, sell, or distribute locally produced foods. And we continue to identify parcels of land owned by the city that may be suited to urban gardening. We’re looking at options for expanding the number of community garden plots, and we now have several larger parcels of land that are being gardened by residents. We need to enable a much more active urban agriculture.

AA: Funding is also a big issue here. High up front costs are often cited by homeowners and property managers as a barrier for efficiency retrofits. What's Portland's approach to that part of the puzzle?

MA: With the help of federal stimulus funding, Portland has put together a program, “Clean Energy Works Portland,” that deals with this issue head on. The program pays for the cost of installing efficiency improvements, and the homeowner then repays the cost on his or her utility bill over time. The program puts contractors to work today, provides homeowners a more comfortable, more valuable home, and delivers energy savings and carbon reduction for decades to come.

We’ve also worked hard to ensure that the program provides quality jobs. We developed a “community workforce benefits agreement” that brought together contractors, unions, social equity organizations, and environmentalists to ensure that the jobs created through the program reach historically disadvantaged parts of the community.

This program is still in a pilot phase that will retrofit 500 homes by June 2010, but we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to scale it up from there.

AA: How important are the links between these projects and other local benefits like creating jobs or improving health?

MA: Connections to other benefits are essential. But we view it more as choosing carbon-reduction actions that help create a future community that people want to live in.

In the Climate Action Plan we describe a “vision for 2050” that we hope is appealing, attractive, and desirable – not so much because it doesn’t depend on carbon emissions to succeed – but because it’s simply a place people want to be.

One of the things that gives me hope that we can achieve very large carbon reductions is that many people enjoy the exact things that make a low-carbon community possible: walking to the neighborhood business district; eating fresh, seasonal food; enjoying a cozy, well insulated home; and having affordable, convenient choices about how to get around town.

Al Gore on Letterman: "I'd Vote for An Asteroid"

Chalk it up to me being a skeptical Canadian usually unimpressed by American TV, but I was really surprised by the quality of Al Gore's appearance on Letterman last night.

Over what must have been close to 15 minutes Gore and Letterman talked about everything from how extremely vulnerable human society is to shifts in climate and the importance of a significant agreement in Copenhagen, to the links of women's education and population stabilization, and the fact that we are currently living through the 6th great extinction in the history of the planet.

(On that Letterman quipped "I'd vote for an Asteroid [like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs] at least that would be exciting.")

[I'll post some video once something decent comes up on Youtube. For now there is this.]
[UDPATE: Here's that Video]

The one message that Late Show viewers went to bed with was that the benefits of good climate change policy go way beyond the environmental. Besides protecting the only planet that we've got, they also reduce vulnerability to foreign owned sources of energy and can help anchor a true rebuilding of the American (and global) economies:

Gore: "We should be relying on American renewable energy that's available right here at home. And we can create millions of green jobs retrofitting houses, installing solar and geothermal energy... and those are jobs that can't be outsourced somewhere else."

Not all of Gore's points made it to their most important punchlines though, so here are a few elaborations:

-- He talked about coral bleaching and ocean acidification, but the clincher (for humans at least) is the impact that that is going to have on fisheries and ocean food supplies.

-- Flooding of lowland communities in Egypt and Asia are a concern, but most especially so when you start to think about the impacts that that will have on migration patterns (i.e. so what is being called "climate refugees".

-- The millions of people who could be displaced within the USA itself also could have used a mention. (It's not just other parts of the world that are vulnerable).

-- Ditto for the impact of water shortages on agricultural production in places like the Middle East. North America also faces a potentially drastic reduction in its agricultural production if we warm by over 4c (which doesn't seem so unlikely any more).

--He also talked about the fact that with women's education and empowerment population growth rates are declining. But beyond that, it needs to be mentioned that population itself is not the problem. It's the fact that a very small percentage of the world gobbles up an incredibly large percentage of its resources.

Gore's new book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (which I have yet to read) came out yesterday.


Portland: Bold Steps on Climate Action

Portland's been at the front of the pack for a while: In 1993 it was the first U.S. city to adopt a strategy to reduce its carbon emissions. It's also one of the only the only cities in North America to have reduced its emissions below 1990 levels (see Seattle's progress report, released after this entry was originally written).

Last week, the City Council committed to reduce the city's emissions by 80% by 2050. That ambitious target is the part of an exceptional municipal climate change action plan that sharpens the city's position on the leading edge of municipal environmental policy.

Overall, the plan is a wealth of information and strategy. It is well worth a look whether or not you happen to live in Portland.[plan in pdf]

The plan covers eight different sectors that range from “buildings and energy” to “urban forestry and natural systems.” The main thrust though is on the way that climate related action can also be a driver for a robust local economy.

A Green Local Economy
Alternative energy sources, green buildings and efficient infrastructure can also pay economic dividends – we've heard that before. But Portland shapes the theory into a convincing strategy that includes:

-- Thousands of jobs created through a drive to retrofit all existing buildings and reduce their overall energy use by 25% by 2030 [an interesting piece on Portland's expanding commercial retrofit market ].

-- A demanding goal of generating 10% of energy from local renewables, starting with ten mega-watts of on-site renewable energy by 2012, that will encourage the continued development of Portland's alternative energy sector.

--And two linked initiatives to build nothing but energy positive buildings by 2030 and push the State of Oregon to further "green" its building codes. Together these will help to support the continued growth of Portland's already well developed green engineering and architecture firms.

All with the added benefit that money that isn't spent on energy stays within the local economy. You can see some of this already in action under the banner of the city's Clean Energy Works program.

Beyond Municipal Boundaries
Portland's plan stands out not only because of the high goals that it sets, but for the boundary pushing approach that it is proposing to meet those goals. It is the only action plan that I have seen that takes seriously, for example, addressing the emissions created outside the municipality during the production and transportation of goods that city-dwellers consume.

It's a subject often discussed, but rarely included in policy. This focus gives local agriculture and food consumption choices an important place in the plan (which links up well with recent discussions of the impacts of our food choices). A full 10% of the plan's projected reductions are projected to come from changes in local food choice habits, and at least some of those edibles are to come from a community based local food system.

“The 20 minute neighbourhood” is another stand-out from the Portland plan. The idea is simple: you should be able to comfortably get your daily needs (education, recreation, shopping, transportation etc.) met within a 20 minute walk of your house. It's also got a nice ring to it that people understand intuitively much better than talking about “dense, multi-use, transit oriented development” (which underneath it are the land use and mobility principles to which the city has committed).

On Not Going It Alone
I was in Portland last year during some of the initial consultations that contributed to the action plan. (20 minute neighbourhoods was one of the concepts that come out of those conversations.) But engaging with community members is something that Portland has been doing for much longer than the preparation period for this particular plan.

Community visioning projects like VisionPDX and ReCode Portland, as well as a history of working with communities, has made it possible for the city to come out with such an ambitious document. It is built on a foundation of extensive discussions with communities and local businesses on the many links between environmental goals and increased overall quality of life, economic success, and security. That process, it seems to me, is as important as the end product itself.

"Our good work to date is not nearly enough."
My only disappointment is that there are less near-term hard targets than I would have liked to see. Why no specific 2012 target for the number of residential retrofits or energy positive buildings, for example?

One thing is certain, with such ambitious goals eyes are now on Portland to see if it can continue to deliver on its commitments and whether its approach is something that can be adapted to suit other North American cities.

The plan opens with the sobering point that “perhaps the most important lesson learned from local climate protection work to date is the frank recognition that our good work to date is not
nearly enough.”(a familiar mia culpa). What comes after is a good indication of the direction that we need to go in if we are really going to take urban sustainability seriously.


Vancouver Bridge Bike Lane a Success

If you build it... they will bike. The success of Vancouver's Burrard bridge bike lane is front page news here today.

The six lane Burrard Bridge is one of Vancouver's most highly used, and connects the downtown core with nearby residential and commercial neighbourhoods. In July, the $1.3 million trial project converted one of the six lanes into a dedicated two-way bike lane separated from traffic by a concrete barrier (see photo). The results of a new report on the project speak for themself:

-- 26% increase in cyclists using the bridge
-- 31% increase in women riders
-- 70,000 additional trips over the summer months
-- A significant reduction in bicycle accidents
-- Impact on vehicle crossing time: negligible.

Not surprisingly, residents support continuing the bike lane trial by a margin of 2 to 1.

The success of the bike lanes emerges from a political mess: The design and implementation of the trial lane has been a political football since 2005. It was staunchly opposed by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, on the grounds that it would discourage people from travelling into the downtown. It also caused general hand wringing among the public over fears that it would cause gridlock. Some versions of the bike lane project were budgeted at as high as $63million adding further to taxpayers concerns.

In the end, the city's much simpler and cheaper lane conversion has been a real success. None of the fears of gridlock have materialized, and ridership is way up. It's the kind of virtuous circle between increased ridership and better infrastructure that we've also seen in other bridge cities, like Portland for example. And as the Vancouver example shows, you don't have to spend oodles of cash to make bridges and streets cycle-safe.

Unveiling the Night Skies in France

Toulouse has begun testing out an interesting new technology that dims street lights to 50% when no one is around. The technology involves body-heat detecting lampposts (cool!) that brighten up when people are around and dim again once they are gone.

As well as cutting energy costs by 50%, the plan has the added benefit of reducing light pollution. Anyone who lives in a city knows how hard it is to see a starlight sky. It's always struck me that one of the faults of contemporary cities is that-- thanks to bad planning and poorly designed technology -- they kidnap us from the beauty our natural surroundings. Badly built streetlights are a prime example:

Lighting up the sky serves no purpose other than blocking out the stars. I don't know about you, but I'd take a sky full of stars over a sickly orange glow any night.

Some excerpts from the Guardian article after the jump.

The lights are going down in Toulouse. Tomorrow early-rising residents of the Allée Camille-Soula in the south-western French city will have set out to work with the morning gloom held at bay by radical new technology which turns on streetlights only when pedestrians pass.

Installed on a 500-metre section of pavement last weekend, the lampposts double the strength of the light they cast when they detect human body heat. Ten seconds later they revert to normal.

"It's a prototype. Nothing like this exists anywhere in the world. We pretty much built the technology ourselves," said Alexandre Marciel, the deputy mayor in charge of works, highways, sanitation and lighting.

The aim is to cut energy consumption by around 50%, first on the busy street which runs between a sports stadium and university halls, then more widely. If it is a success, it will be rolled out across the city of around 450,000 people, France's fourth largest.. Read more...


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.

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