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The COVID-19 pandemic holds lots of lessons for addressing the climate change challenge.  I’ll tackle the knottiest set of lessons — those concerning differing global responses, U.S. partisan cleavages, the psychology of risk and individual choice, and the ethics — in an upcoming post.

For now, I will simply set out a list of ten major impacts which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the climate change mitigation effort.  Four negative, four positive, and two ‘the jury is out.’

FOUR NEGATIVE IMPACTS

 

POACHING, LOGGING & PROTECTED AREAS LOSS

The impacts of COVID-19 — reducing mobility, leading to job cuts, and diverting world attention — have made the work of guarding against poaching, illegal logging and other threats to protected areas much more difficult to accomplish. Endangered specie and protected areas are suffering as a direct consequence.  Possibly, enhanced satellite surveillance and monitoring may be put to greater use in the future to help deal with this problem.

 

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

The Travel & Leisure Industry has been perhaps the single most hard-hit industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a new start-up, the Sustainable Tourism sub-sector has felt this impact particularly hard.  Many Sustainable Tourism operations are in underdeveloped or developing countries and run by local cooperatives which don’t have access to capital resources to sustain them.

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY & WASTE MANAGEMENT

Circular economy refers to design solutions that repurpose waste from every point in a system so that is can be reused, optimizing the system from an efficiency and sustainability standpoint. Factories and entire cities are working to implement circular economies.  The logistics of waste management is a key link.  As you’ll know post-COVID if you’ve tried to recycle plastic bags at your market, that link in the cycle is currently broken.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION MOBILIZATION

Humans are hard-wired for connectivity and, while online methods of mobilization allow for greater efficiency and scale, they lack the impact of people gathering together … both from the standpoint of the participants and the observers of the activity.  Countless environmental action events have now been cancelled due to COVID-19.  Even the COP26 meeting to review progress on the Paris Accord has been postponed a year.

 

 

FOUR POSITIVE IMPACTS

 

REGENERATIVE URBAN GARDENS

Along with baking and at-home yoga, urban gardening is one of the activities which has seen a huge spike since COVID-19 forced us to stay closer to home.  This is a hugely positive development since urban gardens have shown — through programs such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Societies Growers Alliance — that they transform neighborhoods. Food deserts become locales with healthy food while improving the quality of the air.

 

15 MINUTE CITY CONCEPT

As  Financial Times and Treehugger have described, the 15-Minute City concept is “having a moment” thanks to COVID-19.  Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and based on the Lazaretto model developed in Milan during a 16th c. plague, the 15 Minute City plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home,” the same time a commuter might have waited on the platform for a train.

 

MORE INCLUSIVE LOCAL CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Among the many things which the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious is that fact that certain disadvantaged and at-risk communities take a disproportionately heavy hit.  One bright side from this realization is that Sustainability Offices throughout the country are dusting off their city’s Climate Action Plan and reimagining them with a more inclusive vision.  I don’t know if this effort is yet underway in Philadelphia but it should be.

 

IMPACT ON SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING

COVID-19 initially had a disruptive effect on social impact investing, but that disruption has been overcome.  Perhaps because the pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our maximally-efficient economy (and maximally-stressed work-lives) ideas and innovations for more balance and resiliency in work- and life-styles are popping up.  Social impact investing is watering the growth of those new ideas.

 

TWO ‘THE JURY IS STILL OUT’ IMPACTS

 

AIR QUALITY

The shutdown of economic activity and drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels has of course led to a short-term amelioration in air quality, as the twin maps of China clearly shows.  But the jury is out on the critical question of what will happen as activity resumes.  Will economic pressure cause backsliding to abundant and cheap carbon fuels or will the Resiliency Lesson from our experience from the pandemic be learned?  We know that areas with worse air quality suffered more from the virus.

 

INFLECTION POINT – YES OR NO?

We can enlarge the air quality question to the environment as a whole.  Our efforts now to revive economic activity can either be rote or be reimagined.  There are lessons which the pandemic has taught us about our interdependence and about what is most important in our lives.  Will we apply what we have learned to recharging our economy in ways that are more resilient and regenerative or will be fall back on old habits? The answer will reverberate across coming generations.

 

These last two impacts are complex, still-evolving and extremely important.  I will return to each in a future post.

For now, stay safe, healthy and involved.

 

 

The motto of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is ‘knowledge in the public service.’  This publication of mine from September 2012 is made available to the public free of charge here by downloadable PDF.

Book Cover

INTRODUCTION

At the time of my initial appointment to the Wilson Center, it struck me that something was missing from the general discussion in the United States concerning China’s embrace of clean energy and its implications for the United States. Much of what had been written embraced one of two polar positions. It seemed that the U.S.-China relationship in clean energy was either the best avenue for our cooperation or the measuring stick for our final competition. To a casual but concerned reader, the message was confusing. Newspaper “word-bites,” rather than informing discussion, lent anxiety to the existing confusion. The Woodrow Wilson Center provided me time and resources to examine the facts about clean technology (“cleantech”) and China. This was timely. Government agencies, think tanks and trade associations hoping to influence the policy debate began in February 2009 to release a spate of lengthy and in-depth policy reports, many of them technical in nature. We will learn in Chapter One how and why that gusher of information—which has thrown up literally shelf-feet of reports over the past year and a half— suddenly arose. However, for the purposes of this Introduction, it is simply worth noting that these policy tomes, for all that they did serve to provide data-based context to what had previously been “context-free” highly combustible reporting, did not offer much help to an interested non-specialist in making better sense of the main issues. At this “informed” end of the information spectrum, there was now almost too much information spread across too many specialized viewpoints. For a busy entrepreneur, investment manager, business professional, state or local government official, regional economic development analyst, scientific researcher, or engaged student—in fact, for any concerned “global citizen” wanting to understand the issues in a straightforward and streamlined way— it was famine or feast. A super-abundance of highly-specialized information provides not much more help in gaining an efficient grasp of the core issues than scattershot newspaper and media reporting had offered. Sustaining U.S.-China Clean Energy Cooperation 3 This book aims squarely at the “middle ground” of curiosity and interest in this broad topic. At the outset, I would like to be clear about three “operating assumptions” I have built in: Timeframe The three main chapters are concerned with the three-year period from mid-2008 to mid-2011. Except for one digression involving Five Year Plans which covers a 30-year period, this limitation on perspective actually helps bring the main subject matter into better focus. The bulk of the U.S. political effort to engage with China in the clean energy arena took shape during the 2008 Presidential Campaign and was further framed through policy initiatives of the Obama administration. For a new industrial ecosystem like “cleantech” or clean energy, what is relevant is defined by what has most recently happened. It is only in the Conclusion that the time-frame is pulled back to show that some of the dynamics described in preceding chapters are, in fact, related to deeper and more long-standing trends in the overall U.S.-China relationship. Structure As author, I have insisted on an organizational principle for presenting information which puts me at odds with the conventional approach of “Beltway” experts. In Washington, the tendency is to run all relevant information through what I will call the “policy blender” and to present the resulting product as a mix of policy recommendation, policy analysis, and policy refutation. I take a different approach. I believe that the policy process is best served when the three main aspects of business-relevant policy are broken down and viewed separately in their own right. These are: (a) the politics underlying the policy process; (b) the technology innovations which policy initiatives aim to support; and (c) the investment ultimately required to take any technology innovation to scale in the marketplace, thereby driving policy on a long-term and sustainable basis. Rather than jumble these perspectives, I treat them in Merritt t. Cooke 4 separate chapters and try to adopt the relevant “mind-set” of each in presenting material in the respective chapter. This may be nothing more than a reflection of my former training as a cultural anthropologist, but I believe it is useful—within the complex arena of China, the United States, and energy—in revealing underlying dynamics. For this reason, in the U.S. section of the opening chapter on Politics, I will rely heavily on the words of key political actors. Ours is a system where the president needs to persuade the electorate and what is said matters. In the section on Chinese Politics, the approach is different, relying instead on “structural analysis” of the ruling party and its interests. In each case, the attempt is to adopt a perspective particularly suited to its subject matter. Purpose The Woodrow Wilson Center’s motto is “knowledge in the public service.” Woodrow Wilson epitomized the ideal of the “practitioner scholar”—the part-time scholar who devotes some of his or her career to bringing scholarly research into the practical, socially-relevant domains of government or business or non-profit work. This is the spirit with which I have written this book. I am neither a career academic nor a professional policymaker. I have tried to make this book clear and concise, although it involves a complex, and fast-changing topic. Especially for technically inclined readers, I want to acknowledge that no sector domain in the U.S.-China clean energy field can be adequately reduced to a couple of pages. I believe this topic is an important one. If the United States and China find a way to realistically base and sustain their cooperation in clean energy, they will be addressing directly 40 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And if together they manage to create a replicable model of cooperation, they can indirectly help the world address the remaining 60 percent. At its core, this topic touches everyone—those who care deeply about America’s place in the world, those who are moved by China’s epochal reemergence, those who are environmentally-engaged, and those who are responsible global citizens. Students are a particularly important audience because the tectonic issue described in this book will ultimately be the felt experience of their generation. In short, I hope that this book may be found to present important issues in a balanced way and to offer something useful and readily comprehensible to anyone with enough interest to pick it up.

View the Wilson Center’s Book Launch Event here

The following post comes courtesy of Sinosphere, the China blog for The New York Times.  Like a flower poking out of the cracked pavement of a concrete jungle, this is another hopeful sign that ‘The Greening of Asia” is starting to blossom.

Q & A with Author Mark Clifford on “The Greening of Asia”

By Ian Johnson from Sinosphere, May 5, 2015 3:21am

Mark Clifford & Greening of Asia post (5-5-15), photo 1

A technician at Yingli Solar checks a solar panel on a production line at the company’s headquarters in Baoding, Hebei Province. Credit Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

After 20 years in Asia as a journalist, Mark Clifford took over as executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council in 2007. His new book, “The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency,” explores how Asian companies are making strides in providing environmental solutions. China is a special focus because of the country’s huge emissions of carbon, but also because of its potential for innovation.

Mark Clifford & Greening of Asia post (5-5-15), photo 2

Mark Clifford.Credit Courtesy of Mark Clifford

In an interview, Mr. Clifford discussed the need to link businesses, governments and nongovernmental organizations to fight climate change:

Q.:   How did you get interested in this topic?

A:     I joined the Council in 2007 and inherited an almost-finished study on green buildings. That was pretty exotic in Asia back then, and we published a book on it. It got me thinking about the topic.

Q:    Your angle is a bit more hopeful than some. Tell us how that came to be.

A:     Originally, I thought I’d do a book along the lines of “The East Is Black.” And we do have an emergency here. In China, 1.2 million a year are dying prematurely. People need to know how bad it is, but then I got to thinking that this was pretty obvious. Instead, I thought that there are these much more positive responses underway, and people should know about them. The business community, which takes challenges and solves problems, was involved. So it is unabashedly a glass-half-full book, but that’s because it’s important to know there’s a way out. We can despair, we can do nothing, or we can work to solve one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Mark Clifford & Greening of Asia post (5-5-15), photo 3

Q;   Do you see business being the main player in solving the issue?

A:    No, it’s part of the solution. There has to be a three-legged stool of government, civil society and business, and each has to bring its strengths to the table.  Only governments have the power to set rules — the laws and regulations, of course, but also the prices in the forms of taxes and subsidies as well as facilitating infrastructure developments. Media and NGOs make sure that business and government are doing what they promise.

Q:    What was most surprising is how many companies are doing this in one form or another.

A:     Yes, in the book I profile more than a dozen companies at length but also have an appendix of more than 50 companies that are involved with a variety of environmental initiatives. It was surprising to me what’s going on at the corporate level, but they’re doing things for good business reasons. Some are for the P.R. effect, but most look at it as necessary for survival.

Q:    You focused one chapter on Hong Kong’s CLP Holdings, the electric power company.

A:    Their work really sparked this project. In 2007, the then-chief executive, Andrew Brandler, announced that by mid-century, they would cut the carbon intensity of their electricity production by 75 percent. This pledge by one of Asia’s biggest private utilities — mostly coal-fired power plants — to effectively decarbonize by mid-century is unparalleled globally. I think this stems from the Kadoorie family, which owns a major stake in CLP. Michael Kadoorie challenges his top management to look at 50-year horizons. They do this for good reasons. They’re traditionally a coal-burning utility, but they think that this isn’t a good business model in 50 years.

Other companies think that water is underpriced, and in the future, it will be more realistically priced. Carbon also is underpriced, and other companies want to be ready for when it’s changed.  But not all companies have long-term visions.To reach them, you need the other two legs of the stool. You need good, strong government policy, and you need NGOs to hold people accountable.

Q:    What countries have had good policies?

A:    Singapore has done an exemplary job. They decided very early on that water is of existential threat to the nation. So they have taken very firm policies, and it gives companies a form of certainty about costs.Not every country has the capacity that Singapore’s administration has, and it’s a small place with a forward-thinking government. It’s much harder in big countries like China and India, which are more fragmented.

Q:    You have a lot on China.

A:    The good news is we have good policies coming down from the top levels of the Chinese government. Where China continues to struggle is the implementation at the ground level. There’s not always enforcement, and there’s no civil society to act as a check. The time when China decides that the environment and energy issues are as much of a threat as the color revolutions were, or the Hong Kong protests were last year, that’s when we’ll know we have serious progress. We’ve seen with Chai Jing [whose popular documentary film on the environment, “Under the Dome,” was banned] that civil society is muted.

Q:    We read a lot about air pollution, but you also think that water is crucial.

A:     Increasingly, water is a hard-stop issue. Air pollution is horrible, but most people affected by it are still living. But no one can live without water. I don’t know what people will do when the water stops. In China, projects like the South-North Water Diversion Project just delay the day of reckoning. What concerns me is that even most otherwise far-sighted governments are not facing up to the challenges.  For example, what do you do if you’re a municipal official, and you have an industry, say semi-conductors, which uses a lot of water? What do you do when you have to make a choice: water for the factory or the town? These are the kinds of choices that aren’t going to happen today or tomorrow, but governments will face this.

Q:    And yet there are signs of hope in China.

A:    China is about to overtake Germany as having the largest amount of installed solar power capability. It also has large wind turbine facilities. All of this is important because China burns half the world’s coal and accounts for 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. So to fix China, we need to cut coal use. Coal is supposed to peak in 2030, but it could happen a lot faster. So these are huge challenges, but China is potentially further ahead than many people realize.

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