Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ireland and old-school island sustainability

Last week I took a few days off from the thesis and hopped a cheap Ryanair flight to Dublin with Michelle, Tamara, and Kyle, pictured here enjoying our first Guinness (of many) upon arrival.

A couple of nights in Dublin in a flea-bag hostel was a welcome change from a small town winter in southern Sweden. The city is really cool, pretty vibrant with lots of people on the streets. We spent the day on Saturday walking the city and stumbled upon Cultivate – a sustainable living center near Temple Bar.

It was impressive to see what they were doing – they had a shop with great books, some food and various eco-design products from electric bikes to window sill greenhouse planters. They had a demonstration yard in the back with displays for green building and organic gardening techniques, and because it was earth day they were ending up a week of events with a movie on Cuba’s response to their “end of oil” crisis when the Soviet Union collapsed in which they relied heavily on Permaculture and urban gardening for food and solar and biofuel for energy – click here for more on the documentary.

Next, we were off to “Mecca” – which did not disappoint. The freshest Guinness in the world, with a little entertainment about how they brew the beer, the history of the brewery.

Sunday we took the bus across the country to Galway, where we happen to catch “the Irish rugby game of the decade” and then grabbed a ferry to the island of Inis Mór. This place was a total treat, and just what I imagined the Irish country side to look – cows and sheep grazing on spots of lush green pasture engulfed in a network of stone walls.

On Monday we had a great tour of the island from Patrick, a 7th generation islander with a full bag of one-liners. He took us to a couple of ruins – both about 2,500-3,000 years old and incredibly well preserved. Just thinking about that sort of time scale in the island setting (where 'limits to growth' are more obvious than on the global scale) was another reminder of how important that perspective is in terms of sustainability – the fact that natural systems have been co-evolving for billions of years, purifying the atmosphere, soil and water systems to create a livable biosphere for humans with relatively low-toxicity is mind-boggling when considering how incredibly quickly we have gone about forcing those systems towards total collapse as we destroy more and more of the interconnected sub-systems (forests, fisheries, lakes, rivers, fertile soil, climate systems, etc). In just 100-200 years we’ve managed to breakdown so much of the resilience from that co-evolution, in some cases irreversibly.

Depressing and enraging thoughts, but fitting with the melancholy grey drizzle and interspersed ferocious gusts of wind (which added some excitement while checking out the ~400 ft (?) cliffs).

But it was nothing a couple Guinness couldn’t take care of and the inspiration from the positive, restorative solutions from the Cuba movie were keeping us going – and given the growing awareness everywhere you look, I have no doubt that we will restructure the way we go about meeting our needs in time and achieve that dynamic state of sustainability (hopefully) without too much war and catastrophe.

After a long journey of boats, trains, planes, and automobiles from one corner of Europe to another, we were back in K-town, refreshed and ready to dive back into thesis writing – which is pretty much what I’ve been doing non-stop since. It’s going well, getting some great feedback from CDM experts about our tool, “CDM Select,” which is encouraging, and hopefully could lead to its implementation on some real-world projects.

Anyway, for more pics from Ireland check out Michelle’s album:

Hope you’re all well... Stay going.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Stockholm on renewables...

So I had to do a quick round-trip to Stockholm this week to take care of some business and meet with a woman from the UN about our thesis work. It was a great overnight trip, and good to get a change of scenery from Karlskrona.

It was also a good first hand look at the bio-fuel infrastructure that we’ve been learning about here in Sweden. We rented a flexi-fuel care – a Volvo V50 – that looks, feels and drives like a normal car. The only difference is you can put regular gasoline in it or an ethanol blend. You can also mix the two together, so if you have half a tank and you fill up at a station that doesn’t have ethanol, it’s all good. Here's a picture of me filling up the rig:

The exciting thing about what they’ve got going here in Sweden is how fast it happened. We went to a clean vehicles conference back in the fall, put on by Per Carstedt, who later came to BTH and gave us a lecture about his work. What he’s done is pretty incredible. He’s worked with the diverse group of stakeholders involved in the “chicken and egg” problem of a major fuel switch – energy producers, filling stations, car makers, drivers and policy makers – to help create this transition. And it has happened incredibly fast.

Once the car makers knew there was a market, the consumers knew there were enough stations, the filling stations knew there was a supply, the producers knew there was a market, etc., etc…. the whole thing tipped. Now there are over 600 filling stations, there are parking and toll incentives for consumers that drive them, and car makers are cranking out flexi-fuel models.

It’s a small example of how a concerted effort, some cooperation, dialogue, and openness to change can make these seemingly impossible shifts happen. Stay going.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

China’s Approach

It’s clear that much of our fate lies in China’s hands. Our debt, future markets, cheap labor, energy consumption, etc. etc. The issues are many and varied, and fascinating to discuss to no end, I think. All in all I’m hopeful about China’s approach to rapid growth and development – they have little choice but to take a decentralized and diversified approach, and from what I have read, and from those that I have talked to that have been working on large-scale, high level development planning there recently, it seems that they (Chinese leaders, a huge generalization, I know) have a strong grasp of the importance of sustainable development – for competitive advantage, general human survival, and for the more normative quality of life reasons.

This article:,,1752851,00.html is yet another interesting take on the situation and highlights the delicate balance they must walk. Two things that jumped out at me – 1) the fact that they’re not falling prey to the “quixotic quest for higher GDP” trap that has not improved quality of life in so many developing countries, and 2) the fact that they have a compelling and responsible vision.

Now, I know the idea of a government supported “vision” will likely raise red flags (pun intended, sorry) with regards to concerns about communism and state-engineered solutions – and that is certainly something that frightens me. In the case of China, it seems to me that those concerns are easing, as transparency increases and markets are opened up.

But regardless, my real point is that creating a vision – while difficult among large groups – can get us out of the mindset that the future is something that we have no control over, that is just pouring down on us, and the best we can hope for is to predict it the best we can, to the realization that we create the future everyday, so we should mindful of creating one we want (this is the essence of Backcasting, which I’m overdue for a “back to basics” post on). As far as creating a detailed vision of a desirable future we all want, well that’s tricky, but at the very least, we should be able to agree on a few principles that ensure that we will have the opportunity to create that future, whatever it may be. Stay going.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sustainable Fossil Fuels

Here’s a link to a summary of an interesting new book: Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The Unusual Suspect in the Quest for Clean and Enduring Energy (scroll down if there’s no image there). Admittedly, I only gave it a quick scan (gimme a break, I’m in the middle of a thesis here), but it looks like a decent read.

Despite the controversial sounding tone of the title, it seems to say that fossil fuels can play a role in a sustainable future, and that they will have to play a role in the interim. From our perspective, that’s certainly not hard to imagine – as long as SP 1 isn’t violated (substances from the Earth’s crust aren’t systematically increasing in concentration), then we’re all good in terms of CO2 (not counting the increases in concentration we’ve already created, but I’m just talking about looking forward right now) – the author points to CO2 capture and sequestration to take care of that. He says coal will last 800 years, before that I’d only heard 200, but the point is the same – not a short-term concern on the supply side for fossil fuels. Of course the sustainable use of fossils would have to be done in a way that doesn’t violate SP 3 (degradation by physical means) and he addresses this fact.

So the main point – that fossil fuels shouldn’t be forced out prematurely – is well taken. First, I would say I don’t think that’s much of a concern at this stage in the game. Second, it seems to follow the old “either / or” mentality, implying that we need to predict if fossils, or renewables, or nuclear will be the answer. Third, the perspective still seems a bit narrow – and ironically so – as the summary states…

Deliberately diverting from this lowest cost path by prematurely forcing fossil fuels out of the energy supply mix may not mean as much for wealthy countries, but for the poorer people on this planet this arbitrary requirement would divert critical resources that could otherwise be devoted to essential investments in clean water, health care, disease prevention, education, basic infrastructure, security, improved governance and biodiversity preservation.

... but fails to acknowledge that many of these SP 4 (capacity to meet basic needs) violations stem from the extraction and use of fossil fuels. Anyway, I just wanted to throw it out there – it highlights some of the confusion and trade-offs, controversy and challenges of the transition to a sustainable future – and I’m not contradicting it, but just trying to show how a whole-system perspective can help make some sense of it all. Stay going…

Monday, April 10, 2006

Peer Review # 2

We had our 2nd Peer Review session last week, and it went really well. We spent a couple of minutes reviewing what we were doing – focusing on the Sustainable Development aspect of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under Kyoto – and then walked our advisors and colleagues through the tool that we have developed.

The “tool” is a 4-step process that we developed in Excel that uses ‘trigger questions’ to get project developers thinking in a different way – to take a whole system view of their project, and to engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders to ensure that projects are the most effective and appropriate way to synergistically satisfy people’s needs in a way that not only reduces or avoids GHG emissions but also avoids other negative socio-ecological impacts by designing them out of projects.

We got some great feedback from the group, and some positive encouragement on how user-friendly the tool is – we’re becoming intimately familiar with Excel these days, just can’t get enough. So, I don’t want to bore you all with the details – but of course, if you’re interested throw in some comments, and I’d be happy to elaborate. I hope you’re all doing well… Stay going.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The 'sleeping giant' starts to wake up...

It was another big week for business and sustainability. This interesting commentary from following the Time cover story, discusses how climate change is finally a serious business concern, and how companies are tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to address it.

The article points out that “Over the past week alone, Wells Fargo (WFC), UPS (UPS), BP (BP), Nike (NKE), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), and GM (GM) have put out press releases about their environmental initiatives.”

Maryland became the 8th state to join RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), California introduced legislation that would set a cap on GHG emissions, and utilities and energy intensive industry at a US Senate hearing Tuesday gave broad approval for a federal cap and trade system.

It’s great to see the US finally addressing the issue (unfortunately almost 10 years behind the rest of the world), as it certainly is a prerequisite for the kind of sea-change necessary to tackle the problem.

The late response will make the problem more expensive to deal with – as every long term capital investment in fossil fuel power plants and urban / sub-urban infrastructure that reinforces the need for car travel is essentially throwing money down the drain, hurting our competitive advantage.

But my hope is that there is a silver lining to this – and that would be that because the slow and stubborn response will cost us collectively a lot of money, we will be less likely to continue to push off problems as long as possible, particularly when they are problems we know little about.

In other words, hopefully all of us in the US – our businesses and governments included – will start taking a more holistic approach to assessing the impacts of how we go about meeting our needs. We can start taking a pro-active, upstream, strategic approach to Sustainable Development at home – and I think only in that way can the US hope to hang on to its position as a global leader, and regain its reputation as a respected one.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Back to Basics...

I've been meaning to put up some brief posts on core-concepts, so I have some clear, concise posts to reference to. As you'll see below with 'the funnel,' I'm finally getting around to it. Just wanted to explain why these general conceptual posts will start coming from nowhere. Stay going...