Category Archives: Energy and Resources

The ‘big push’ transforming the world’s energy systems

As I’m sure you have noticed, renewable energy is taking the world by storm, driven by rapidly falling prices. Ever wonder how that happened?

In 2009, I authored a concept paper for the United Nations Secretariat, for circulation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. COP15 became infamous because it was deemed a spectacular failure. Heads of state were personally negotiating the terms of the weak “Copenhagen Accord” into the wee hours of the night — a sure sign that the diplomatic process had broken down.

Fortunately, that process had nothing to do with my job in Copenhagen, which was to garner support for a bold new initiative — a “Big Push” strategy — to scale up renewable energy in the developing world, and thereby bring the price down to affordable levels globally.

I’ll skip over the technical details of the plan I was proposing, working on behalf of senior officials in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The basic concept was to invest heavily in renewables in poor countries, using a globally coordinated system of price guarantees (aka “feed-in tariffs” — you can read the “Technical Note” here). Pump money for solar panels and wind turbines into those countries, and the resulting scale-up in production would bring global prices for those technologies down, and fast.

Fast was important: Otherwise, developing countries would get locked into cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels, and there would be no chance of meeting global CO2 reduction targets.

The idea for this Big Push had originated with Tariq Banuri, a brilliant policy innovator from Pakistan who was then serving as the U.N.’s director for sustainable development. My job was to develop his idea into a clear proposal, with numbers and an implementation strategy, then recruit wise and respected voices at Copenhagen to support the package.

And we did. The positive response we received to Tariq’s concept of a “Global Green New Deal” for renewable energy was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Copenhagen, even though not much came of it after that.

(The full story of my experiences in Copenhagen is told in the second edition of my 2010 book, “Believing Cassandra.” After COP15, I started building a nonprofit organization to promote the Big Push, but dropped it when many of our ideas were absorbed into then-U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011.)

But here’s the punchline: In hindsight, pushing this Big Push strategy was probably unnecessary.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme.

It turns out there was no need to sell governments and investors on the idea of scaling up renewable energy, and to incentivize them with a complex global subsidy scheme. Much to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, the world already has achieved the affordability targets we set, well ahead of the schedule we were envisioning — without any such scheme.

It is important to underscore that those targets, and our proposed schedule — bringing the price of solar and wind energy down to about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, within 10 to 20 years — seemed wildly, even unrealistically ambitious back in 2009. But by 2017, just eight years after Copenhagen, the achievement of those targets is already in the rear-view mirror.

Net power generating capacity added in 2016, globally, by main technology, in gigawatts.

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2017,” Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF

Take a good look at the pie chart above. The data comes from Bloomberg, published by U.N. Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. Notice that over half of all the new electricity capacity installed globally during 2016 came from solar and wind. For five years running, solar and wind have outpaced coal and gas by a wide margin. While there is a long way to go before the world is driven principally by renewables, the energy transformation is well under way.

The learning curve

A key factor driving this transformation is the price of renewables, which has dropped like a stone. Why? Exactly for the reasons we described in 2009, based on a well-known economics concept called the “learning curve”: The more you make something, the more you learn how to make it cheaply and efficiently.

Economists can predict declines in price by plotting these learning curves on a graph, relating price to the quantity of a thing produced. It doesn’t matter how much time it takes to produce the thing; quantity is the key variable. The faster you produce that quantity, the faster you slide down the learning curve towards the associated lower price.

When drafting our Big Push plan in 2009, I was astonished to find that the learning curves for renewable energy being used by most analysts originally had been drawn in 1992. No one had thought to update them. The curves seemed very pessimistic to me, given how fast China (among other actors) was coming online with solar panels and wind turbines. I suggested those curves needed to be redrawn, with new assumptions, based on the rapid developments and faster-than-expected learning we already were seeing in the renewables market.

As it turns out, my optimism was still amazingly pessimistic.

In 2009, even after adjusting the learning curve, we thought it would take about 2,000 gigawatts of installed solar and wind power to bring the price down to our global affordability target of 3 cents per kWh. But that price was reached in a number of countries, including India, Mexico, Chile and Morocco, by 2016. And the total installed global capacity at that time: Just 800 gigawatts — less than half of what we calculated would be necessary.

Bear in mind, 800 gigawatts of solar and wind energy is still a huge number, compared to where things started in 2009. Back then, the world’s wind turbines, if they were spinning at full capacity, could generate just over 150 GW. By 2016, that number had swelled to nearly 500 GW. The growth in solar photovoltaics was even more rocket-like: from 23 gigawatts of capacity in 2009 to more than 300 in 2016.

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Source: REN21, Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Even the world’s top energy experts call this rapid fall in prices astonishing. How did the price fall so much faster than anyone expected?

Simple: Our expectations were plain wrong. You’ve no doubt heard of Moore’s Law, describing how the power of computing chips doubles every 18 months. How about Swanson’s Law? The term was introduced in an Economist article in 2012 to describe a similar pattern for solar panels. Swanson’s Law was basically a revised learning curve, one much closer to the curve we redrew at the U.N. in 2009 (but never published).

There is just one problem with Swanson’s Law: it, too, has proven far too pessimistic. Current prices for solar-electric panels are less than half of what Swanson’s Law would have predicted.

In reviewing these amazing and historic developments, it occurred to me that the world did get a Big Push strategy after all. Renewable energy scaled up rapidly in developing countries, pushing down renewable energy prices globally.

But we didn’t need a massive effort to mobilize international aid, as well as investments from the world’s rich countries, at the trillion-dollar scale we envisioned in 2009. It happened thanks to the target countries, the ones we call “developing,” especially China and India. And it happened faster than predicted, because our predictions were too pessimistic.

It turns out these countries learned faster than any “learning curve” Western experts could draw.

There are several extremely important lessons in all that, but here’s the biggest one: Never doubt that massive, transformative change is possible. It’s happening all around us, all the time — and usually faster than anyone expects.

© 2018 by Alan AtKisson. Originally published on Greenbiz.com as his “North Star” column, 23 Jan 2018.

Why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability

Seven Reasons why Russia Should Invest in Sustainability — Three of Them Unconvincing

by Alan AtKisson

CEO, AtKisson Inc. & Author, The Sustainability Transformation

On Wednesday, 10 February, I made the second keynote presentation (after Ashok Khosla’s opening) to a conference in Moscow called “Innovative Russia: Responding to Global Challenges.” The other participants on the 11-person panel were a small who’s who of combined Russian and Silicon Valley leadership. You can view the program here:  http://gvacapital.com/ir.  Moderator Yermolai Solzhenitsyn’s affiliation is not listed there, but he’s the managing partner for McKinsey in Moscow. The photograph was taken from the stage, with my iPhone, during Ashok Khosla’s speech.

Response to the speech was positive enough that I turned it into an article text, published below, which will also be translated and published by the Russian on-line magazine gazeta.ru. Since my books were recently published in Russian translation, I also managed to slip in — during a final comment, about how venture capitalists could at least try to put some sustainability content into their investment decisions, instead of making money on anything at all and then giving some of their wealth to charity — a note of gratitude to Natalia Tarasova, a professor at Mendeleev University and good friend. She had overseen the translation.

Why “Seven Reasons”? Because Muscovites love the number seven. And why are “Three of them Unconvincing”? Read, and you’ll see …

These are exciting times in sustainability. In practice, sustainability involves reinventing business and governance processes so that they stop destroying key ecosystems, depleting irreplaceable resources, and increasing the gap between rich and poor. “Practice” is exactly what has been missing from sustainability work for most of the concept’s lifetime. But recently, sustainability has moved out of the category “something that academics, bureaucrats, and activists talk about” to the category “something that mainstream business leaders and investors do something about.” This is a monumental shift that has been gestating for some time, if you knew where to look. But it really began showing evidence of its exponential growth rates only in the past three to five years. Now, the evidence is overwhelming:

  • Countries like South Korea and China have embraced the concept of “Green Economy” or “Cyclic Economy” with serious policy initiatives and billions of dollars of investment
  • Global companies like Unilever or Siemens (and dozens of others) have set goals that combine ambitious revenue growth with strong reductions in environmental impact, impressive increases in corporate responsibility practice, and serious commitments to “sustainability innovation”
  • Global consulting and auditing giants such as Ernst & Young have been hiring hundreds of people to support new, growing divisions with titles like “Climate Change and Sustainability Services”
  • Investment in renewable energy grabs headlines every week, such as the recent deal between United Arab Emirates and Spain to invest USD 5 billion in Spanish solar technology
  • Oil and gas economic powerhouses such as Norway are redirecting more and more of their windfall fossil-fuel-generated capital into cleaner and more sustainable solutions (Norway recently pledged to increase its domestic renewable energy use to 67.5% of total by 2020, which translates to an increase of 9% every year in wind, hydro, solar and other sources)

These items are already commercial facts, but more visionary innovations and mega-projects are also taking shape in the world’s think-tanks and testing grounds. From South Korea’s large-scale tidal energy installations, to the bio-mimicry technologies erupting from the minds of biologists working in collaboration with engineers, to the giant-but-increasingly-realistic proposals such as “DESERTEC” (generating solar electricity in the Sahara) or mega-grids (e.g. linking up East Asia with a vast complex of underground, highly efficient mag-lev trains and supercables) … it is no wonder that anyone just waking up to this transformative revolution in humanity’s planetary management strategy might find it all a bit dizzying.

Of course, up to now, humanity had no “planetary management strategy” — and this was precisely the problem. Our activities, super-amplified through the power of cheap energy and technology, had become planetary in scale, but disruptive (and largely destructive) of the planet’s billion-year-old natural processes. And indeed, for decades, it was largely academics and citizen activists (plus a relative handful of visionary leaders in business, the United Nations, local government, and other arenas) who worried the most about what was happening, and tried to do something about it.

That “something” that these early leaders were trying to “do” was to change government policies, business practices, consumer attitudes, educational curricula, and other elements of our increasingly inter-connected global system. The request was actually simple:  Add sustainability to these things. Add systems thinking. Add a longer-term, more holistic perspective to the definition of “success.”

For many years, these efforts to change thinking (and practice, and policy, and investment) did not seem to be working, or at least not working fast enough, and certainly not working at anything like the right scale. But such is the magic of exponential growth:  what appear first as insignificantly small, incremental changes are in fact replication and multiplication processes. They grow by doubling. Things appear to go faster and faster, and at a certain point, things take off. Think cell phones, Internet, Total Quality Management. Few people remember that seeking to perfect quality, as a manufacturing practice, was still a new idea a few decades ago. The idea’s original proponents could barely get noticed by business leaders. But then the Total Quality Management movement started (in Japan), it grew exponentially, it took off … and by one decade ago, “Quality Management” was such a normal, mainstream concept that everyone stopped thinking about it.

That’s what’s happening in sustainability:  take-off. Sure, there are ups and downs even in the midst of take-off, which is exactly what you would expect in a maturing market of any kind. But the overall pattern in unmistakable. Wherever you look on the map of the world, from the renewable energy fields of Brazil, to the environmental accounting practices of shoe-maker Puma, to the spread of clean cooking stove technology to the smoked-out kitchens of the developing world, you can see transformative change accelerating before your very eyes.

But not in Russia.

Why is Russia missing from the emerging map of transformation to a greener and more sustainable economy? With its enormous amounts of money, resources, and brainpower, it could be leading the way, as several other oil and gas-based economies are doing. But analysts far more well-informed than myself — including Russia’s own leadership — have long noted with worry that Russia’s surging economy is almost entirely based on the export of raw resources. The country’s rising prosperity floats on that sea of oil and gas, as a few Google clicks (engineered partly by Sergey Brin’s Russian brainpower) will easily tell you. Easy wealth breeds indifference, and Russian innovators tend to take their inventiveness elsewhere, to places like Silicon Valley, resulting in a drain of capital, both financial and intellectual, from the country.

This situation could easily be reversed. I use the word “easily” in an entirely theoretical sense:  in practice, nothing is easy in Russia, as any Russian is quick to tell you. The entire nation seems to take pride in its enormous capacity for problems and difficulties — and by extension, its capacity for overcoming them. Nonetheless, in theory, Russia could change relatively quickly from being a sustainability laggard to a serious leader, especially in areas related to technology and large-scale industrial implementation.

What follows are seven reasons why Russian leaders in government and business — including that class of wealthy and powerful people known universally as the “Oligarchs,” together with the people who advise them — should take the opportunity for investing in sustainability far more seriously than they currently do. While all seven reasons are convincing to me, I am quite certain that the first three will not be convincing to anyone in a position of power in Russia. For that reason, I have clearly labeled these first three as “Unconvincing Reasons.”

But that leaves four reasons that seem to have the potential for unlocking a torrent of creativity, investment, and change in the way Russia pursues its economic destiny. Because many Russian economic leaders started their professional lives as physicists and scientists, I will use — starting from Reason #4 — the concept of Potential Energy as a metaphor for what I, as an outsider, see as possible in Russia. A small shift in thinking could result in large shifts in the real world, resulting in multiple benefits, not just for Russians, but for the world as a whole.

UNCONVINCING REASON #1:  THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY

Many sustainability issues have a national security dimension. If you are sitting on resources that others desperately need but don’t have — like oil, or water — you may find soldiers at your doorstep. UN diplomats quietly pointed to climate change and precipitation declines as underlying causes for the forced migrations and slaughters of Darfur. Australia has concerns about what happens on its Northern shorelines if refugees flee swamped coastlines or other disruptions. The US Department of Defense runs scenario exercises based on climate change, conflicts over resources, and other sustainability worries, and is moving aggressively into biofuels and solar energy to insulate defense operations from the vagaries of a global energy market. One would think that arguments like these would be compelling to anyone in the leadership of a nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

But Russia is vast. It has resources that it perceives, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually endless. It has an extremely strong defense (which, according to recent news reports, is slated to get even more budget support in coming years). No one in Russia worries seriously about hungry Finns or Latvians storming across the border, or even Chinese troops for that matter. No one worries about where the fuel to run tanks and warships and fighter jets will come from. Despite the echoes of Cold War saber-rattling in recent Russia-NATO exchanges, nobody worries about missiles falling on Moscow anymore. National security is truly not an issue for Russia. Arguing for sustainability “for the sake of national security” would generate nothing more than an ironic chuckle, so let’s cross that off the list.

UNCONVINCING REASON #2:  BREACHING THE PLANETARY BOUNDARIES

In a landmark article published in September 2009 in the journal Nature, an eminent international group of scientists concluded that humanity’s activities had already pushed several global ecosystems (climate, biodiversity, the nutrient cycle) over the limit of what those systems could tolerate. Other systems were heading quickly over the same precipice. The long-term consequences would be “detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” — strong language that reflects the seriousness with which they viewed the available data. They called for concerted action to bring humanities use of resources and emissions of waste back into the “safe zone” of what the planet can sustain. Their arguments were so compelling that political leaders have been sitting up and taking notice, including the United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which is chaired by two presidents.

But once again:  Russia is vast.  Even if the worst-case scenarios associated with these trends come to pass, the typical Russian leader is likely to think, “So what?” If water dries up in one place, we’ll shift agriculture to another. Too hot and dry in the south? Too much nitrogen in the water table? Too much climate change? We’ll just grow wheat in balmy Siberia. The rest of the world may have serious troubles, but Russia feels insulated by its size, geographic diversity, and resource wealth. Cross Reason #2 of the list as well.

UNCONVINCING REASON #3:  THE NEED TO “SAVE THE WORLD” FROM CATASTROPHE

A generation of sustainability champions (including myself) were inspired to act by the analyses contained first in a little book called The Limits to Growth, published in 1972 and updated twice, the last time in 2004. The original worries presented in Limits — that the exponential growth of population, resources, and pollution would eventually bump up against the boundaries of the planet (see Reason #2) — have been supplemented in recent years by the notion that there could be “tipping points” in the global system. Resource depletion, ecosystem disturbance, and other activities may seem “sustainable” for a while, but when they can cross an invisible line in the sand, they suddenly collapse like a house of cards, taking innumerable species (and humans) with them. An example might be the Amazon:  at what point does the number of trees lose critical mass and trigger a sudden shift from Rainforest to dry savannah? Unfortunately, such nightmare scenarios are the stuff of current serious scientific analysis.

When people use the phrase “save the world” in the context of sustainability, usually with a kind self-mocking (or just plain mocking) undertone, what they often mean is the effort to stop destructive processes before it is simply too late to prevent some sort of resulting catastrophe. People are emboldened in this work by remembering that, on several occasions, humans actually have saved the world, or at least important parts of it. The most famous example is the threat to the ozone layer caused by the production of CFCs:  production of this insidiously dangerous chemical was dramatically reduced, essentially just in time to prevent the loss of the planet’s one and only atmospheric shield against dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Even the phrase “Save the Whales!” from the 1970s can be celebrated now as a kind of world-saving triumph, at least for several whale species, which have bounced back from the brink of near-certain extinction.

But is “saving the world” a compelling reason for Russia to invest more seriously in the sustainability transformation? Hardly. Russia will be fine. See above: even in a truly worst-case scenario, Russia would adapt and survive, as it always has. (Remember that Russian affinity for surviving serious and complicated problems.) And as for saving the world for its own sake, well … what has the world done for Russia lately? Scratch Reason #3.

If you question my characterizations above, consider the data. While reading through the excellent English-language summaries provided by the organizers of the recent Russia 2012 Forum — an event that happens right after Davos, and manages to entice many of the global Davos stars to stop in Moscow on their way home — I came upon this wonderful tidbit at the end of a slide presentation on Russian attitudes to risk management in the financial markets. As the last item in an otherwise dull review of what Russian investors think about hedge funds, participants were asked, “Do you believe the world will end any time soon?”  “Yes,” said 4.3% of respondents. “No,” said 45.6%. But the majority response, 50.1%, was this:  “I don’t care, I’m hedged.”

Having dispensed with the unconvincing reasons for why Russia should invest in sustainability, let’s turn to the potentially convincing ones, and to that wonderful and relevant concept from basic physics:  Potential Energy.

REASON #4:  CAPTURING AN EXTRAORDINARY ONE-TIME FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITY

According to published analyses, there is a lot of money in Russia currently trapped in its antiquated buildings, equipment, and infrastructure. It is trapped there partly by energy price subsidies, but it is also trapped by a simple lack of attention and focus. There may be more exciting things to do on a Friday night in Moscow than improving the energy efficiency of buildings and machines; however, there are few things that are potentially more profitable in the long term.

The key word here is “potential.” An apple hanging by its stem has what physicists call “potential energy.” Break the stem — or better yet, if the stem is gripped between your two fingers, simply open your hand — and the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, the energy of motion. The apple falls.

According to a report by McKinsey & Co. published in 2009 (“Pathways to an energy and carbon efficient Russia”), there are many such apples in the Russian economy. Relatively simple incentives and decisions, the equivalent of simply letting the apples fall, could create a very respectable flow of money, even in a country used to the torrential flows of petro-rubles. Consider the following:

  • An initial investment of €70 billion to upgrade buildings and construction would result in savings of €190 billion over a twenty-year period. This is equivalent to a 120% return on investment.
  • When it comes to producing heat and energy, a €20 billion investment produces €60 billion in savings over the same period, a whopping 200% ROI.

In fact, says McKinsey, “Russia has the largest relative potential among all the BRIC countries to reduce [CO2] emissions through implementing only measures that are economically attractive” [emphasis added]. While the savings in CO2 may not be a compelling motivator for Russia’s economic leadership, the potential for solid returns on investment should be — not to mention the jobs that could be created in order to do the work, and the pleasure of owning shiny new (or renovated) buildings and machines.

The benefits include health and safety: Russia’s own Geographical society reported last year (March 2011) that “we have fundamentally obsolete production facilities and communal infrastructures, which is [a recipe for] a major disaster.” Fully 60-80% of Russia’s energy infrastructure is estimated to be in need of maintenance and repair, and those repairs could be combined with efficiency upgrades. Around 90% of industrial waste is not recycled back into production: waste is going to waste, when it could be generating more economic value. These figures represent a great deal of financial potential energy that could be released by the right combination of incentives, policies, and forward-looking investors.

What is that combination, exactly? These are the kinds of big, complicated problems that Russians ought to love, because solving them could make some people quite wealthy. The potential exists not only in renovating the existing infrastructure, but in the new things that must be built just to meet projected demand. Over 60% of the infrastructure to provide Russia’s expected energy needs in 2030 has yet to be built. What choices will Russia make about how to build it? Wasteful ones? Or long-term profitable and sustainable ones?

In fact, it is entirely possible that the estimates of McKinsey and others may be conservative. For example, the rise of “passive house” technologies in Europe in recent years has produced many examples of extraordinary cost savings (which is another way of saying, extraordinary profit). A typical Soviet-era apartment complex in, say, the Czech Republic can now be rebuilt to save 90% of its previous energy consumption, while creating brighter and more attractive living environments. No one really knows what would happen if innovations such as these were serious deployed throughout the Russian economy, because no one has tried.

The apple is still clenched firmly in the hand.

REASON #5: THE COMPETITION FOR ECONOMIC AND GEO-POLITICAL POSITION

Like it or not, Russia is in competition for power and influence on the world stage. At the moment, the nation’s vast fossil fuel and other resource reserves are the primary platform on which it stands. But this powerful platform will not last forever, and its lifespan may be shorter than many believe.

The global energy market is changing with extreme rapidity. Many countries are embracing new (and environmentally controversial) methods of extracting oil and gas explicitly to reduce their dependence on the global market … and by implication, their dependence on Russia. Other nations, such as China and South Korea, are taking what might be called “hard positions” in sustainability and green economic innovation, partly as a way of increasing their “soft power”:  South Korea has been rewarded for the billions it invests in “Green Growth” with an enhanced profile as a forward-thinking technology leader envied by many. Meanwhile, the financial crisis continues to depress demand, and if high unemployment persists or deepens, the word “depression” may creep back into the global economic lexicon. Experts speculate openly about what will happen if these trends combine to create a “perfect storm” — from the Russian economic perspective — of dramatic drops in the price of oil and gas. The picture they paint is not rosy.

The reality of today’s energy market, as well as the future of how that market will develop, are both devilishly complicated. Some say “peak oil” will drive prices sky-high; others say depressed demand and diversification will send prices plummeting. Predicting the future is impossible. But that simply underscores the very real possibility that Russia may not have more than a decade left to enjoy its extraordinary fossil fuel capital windfall. If the petro-ruble river starts to run dry, what will Russia have to show for all its years of easy money? As more nations “frack” their own gas, install windmills and solar cells, super-insulate their houses, and start driving their cars on electricity generated off their own roof-tops, what will they buy from Russia? What will Russians buy from each other?

Investments in sustainability of the kinds described above — not just in the low-hanging fruit in Reason #4, but also in the more visionary directions described earlier, including the emerging fields of biomimicry, green chemistry, and sustainability-oriented nano-, bio-, and info-technology — would accelerate the kind of economic transition that everyone says Russia needs. Russia has the chance to transform itself from pipeline-and-oil-barrel hulk to a focus of technical and economic admiration, while renewing its economy on back of a much more diverse and robust industrial portfolio. Granted, the world’s hunger for oil and gas is not going to disappear any time soon; but the world’s hunger for sustainability-oriented innovation, and its respect for those who seriously invest in it, is growing exponentially. This has created a serious global race in which Russia is not currently competing.

And you have to be in it, to win it.

REASON #6: IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE FOR THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE

In a recent issue of Science journal, an international team of 24 researchers documented the benefits in every country, worldwide, of reducing tropospheric ozone and black soot. In brief, by taking action to improve a menu of 14 wasteful and pollution-generating industrial activities — of which all but one apply strongly to Russia — health will improve, food production will increase, and millions of premature deaths would be avoided (an estimated 40,000 of them in Russia). The cost? Negative. The whole exercise would generate net positive income by reducing healthcare expenditures and increasing agricultural output. The fact that these actions would also help reduce the impact of climate change is just a bonus (“Simultaneously Mitigating Near-Term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” 13 January 2012).

This is just the most recent in a long line of research papers, case studies, and living-proof models showing that “going green” is good for people as well as the planet. In buildings renovated to be sustainable and efficient, fewer people get sick and employee retention rates improve. If you make city streets or even parking lots more beautiful and pedestrian-friendly, people will walk more instead of driving their cars round and round looking for a parking spot that is 50 meters closer to the door.

Sustainability innovations of these kinds do not just save lives, make money, and stimulate economic development: they make people happy. They create optimism. They can help point whole societies squarely toward the future, and generate a feeling of hope.

What Russian leader, in government or in business, would not want this for the Russian people?

Which brings us to the seventh, and most compelling reason for why Russia should invest seriously in sustainability.

REASON #7:  BECAUSE YOU CAN

Russia, compared to most other countries on Earth, is in a privileged starting position when it comes to investing in sustainability. It has ample financial and intellectual capital to invest — much of which is leaving the country, at the moment, but that is a flow that could be reversed. It has surplus resources to such an extent that the word SURPLUS should be written in large letters. It has a relatively unchallenged position of national security, and no need to project power globally (because, among other reasons, it has all the resources it needs). It has a deep heritage of leadership in science and technology on which to draw. And it has plenty of low-hanging, money-making fruits to pick from its economic tree.

More importantly, Russia’s strengths give it the resilience needed to take some risks and absorb some losses — for as any entrepreneur will tell you, one has to be ready to take a loss once in a while, in order to accomplish a big win. Changing national economic habits, technologies, and infrastructures is going to require a lot of focused thought, domestic reform, strong incentives (e.g. to reverse human and financial capital outflows), and occasionally nerves of steel. Russia needs to find its niche on the global sustainability stage and, for its own sake, to do it quickly. As noted earlier, the theory is easy and straightforward. The practice will be challenging.

But Russians are a tough people. They like challenges, and they don’t like to lose. There is a great deal to be won by investing seriously in sustainability and economic transformation. Russia certainly should do this, if only because — in ways that truly are unique to this country — Russia can.

How I Created (Not) a UN Campaign

This article is about how I became obsessed with trying to create, or catalyze into being, an international campaign to dramatically increase renewable energy investment in the developing world — and why I now feel ready to let go of that obsession. The short version is this:  The campaign is happening, and the UN is doing it.

I have a hard time letting go of my ideas for initiatives, once they are hatched. And the UN campaign is not exactly what I imagined for the initiative we were calling “Big Push.” But it’s certainly close enough for me to say, okay, this is one project I can take off my plate. Here’s the link:

http://sustainableenergyforall.org

This campaign is about as high level as such a thing can get. The initiative comes straight from the Secretary-General’s office. The campaign was created by an act of the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2012 “The Year of Sustainable Energy for All.” (See Resolution 65/151)

What did I have to do with all this? Not much. But anyone who has been watching this space will recall the work I did in 2009 for UNDESA’s Division for Sustainable Development. The vision for the Big Push was not mine (it was Tariq Banuri’s, former director of DSD) nor were most of the ideas and analyses that went into it (I was building on the work of many people, inside and outside the UN, and especially the World Economic and Social Survey 2009). My job was to help assemble a coherent strategy document to take to the Copenhagen CoP-15 climate summit, in December 2009. Working with a number of colleagues, we pieced together something that I still think of as being beautiful and elegant in design:  a high-leverage, large-scale program for spreading renewables quickly in the world’s poor countries, with the effect of improving people’s lives, while also accelerating the renewables market in the rich countries and speeding the transition to a renewable energy future.

The “Big Push” strategy paper was well-received:  we quickly won the endorsement of many leading climate/energy researchers, plus WWF International and other NGOs. You can download that strategy document by clicking here.

Copenhagen did not work out as anyone hoped, of course, and the strategy paper just lay there for awhile. But I could not let it go. The vision and ideas may have originated from others (the “Innovators” in this specific case), but in classic “Change Agent” fashion, I had become thoroughly convinced that this was an idea that had to happen, if we were to achieve the transformation to a sustainable world in reasonable time.

So I began to make some noise about creating an independent, international “Big Push Campaign,” outside the UN system. I talked to friends in leadership positions, recruited the excellent help of an astrophysicist-turned-energy-researcher at Harvard (Achim Tappe, thank you!), networked with other experts, and even had the marvelous opportunity to present the Big Push concept as an opening speech to this year’s World Renewable Energy Congress (Anders Wijkman, thank you!). You can access the text of my speech to the Congress by clicking here.

At the heart of the original strategy is the idea of spreading, and globally subsidizing, the pricing mechanism called a “Feed-in Tariff,” or “FiT”. This involves guaranteeing that if you build a renewable energy installation, you can sell the resulting electricity to the grid, at a subsidized price. The mechanism works incredibly well, and has driven the explosion of wind and solar development in Denmark, Germany, Spain and other countries. New countries keep adding it (Japan just did), but others are also drawing in the brakes (as the UK just did), because it works too well (think some people).

There were many other technical, policy, and outreach aspects to this plan, which you can read about in the original paper, and in the more advanced technical ones that followed, such as Deutsche Bank’s studies for the Secretary-General’s advisory group 2010 and 2011, focusing on how to create a global “FiT” mechanism while managing the risks etc. How did all of this, and many other streams of activity, work together to become the new UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative? To be honest, I really have no idea; I moved on to other projects at the UN (like this one), and no longer have a direct window into that process. Did my work in 2009 have any impact in 2010 and 2011? I’d like to think so — I know UNDESA really spread that paper around, both inside the UN system and outside — but I really don’t know, one way or the other. That’s the consulting life:  you engage with a system, you do something, the system changes … and you never really know if those changes happened (even just in part, even just a tiny little bit) because you engaged with the system … or if the system would have changed anyway, with or without you. Understanding this basic truth keeps one feeling very humble about consulting work, even when it feels “important”. Perhaps especially then.

The most important question, however, is certainly not whether my work had any impact. Not even the technical side of renewable energy scale-up is much of a question at this point:  it’s well established now that the technologies work, the policy mechanisms work, the market works. There are exciting breakthroughs on sustainable energy happening, and being reported, nearly every day. (My current favorite is this one:  indoor solar lighting using only a plastic bottle, water, and a piece of tin or aluminum. It’s spreading like wildfire in the Philippines, where it was invented. Check it out on this short BBC video.)

The really big question is, will these strategies actually work? What clearly isn’t working yet is marshaling the political will to actually transform the global energy system, as the UK government’s recent pull-back on their highly successful FiT program illustrates all too dismally. What isn’t working yet is the serious mobilization of capital, at the scale we really need, and in the right direction. What isn’t working yet is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies that push the whole planet in the wrong direction, while helping the world’s richest energy companies get richer. Etc. etc. etc. There is certainly a lot to do … and there are a lot of powerful interests at play.

So at this point, it no longer makes much sense for me to try to recruit others into a new and separate global campaign, as one among a dozen projects on my plate. Instead, I’ve started putting my shoulder to the wheel of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, promoting it through every channel I have access to. It’s not enough, as we all know, even to have a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Secretary-General pushing an agenda like this.

It’s going to take a Big Push from all of us.

How to Keep Doing Sustainability in an Absurd World

A professional colleague of mine recently resigned from the sustainability movement. Seriously ill from years of overwork, and despairing of the movement’s chances for success, this person had no choice but to quit. Trying to change the world’s destructive energy technologies, protect the rights of future generations to enjoy functioning ecosystems, and/or save the world from the ravages of climate change was just too much for a body – or soul – to bear.

All I could do was empathize. On the one hand, it is easy to find reasons for optimism these days. Daily, my email inbox fills up with notices about new technology breakthroughs, new creative policy initiatives, new corporate sustainability strategies. Over the past two decades, sustainability has multiplied from a lonely cause championed by a handful of idealists into a profession involving hundreds of thousands of people, and to a multi-billion-dollar market in services. Surely that’s an indicator of amazing success!

On the other hand, my inbox also fills with ample reasons to weep. The oceans, leading scientists announced recently, are dying. Famine is once again striking East Africa. The nations around the Arctic are rapidly shifting their militarizing presence to the far north, rattling (nuclear) swords to make sure they will each get a fair share of the oil and gas that can now be extracted from under the melting ice. Every week, the nuclear disaster in Japan is revealed to be “even worse” than the government had most recently admitted. And so it goes.

Summer, especially in Sweden, is a good time to reflect on these seeming paradoxes. The pace of work here slows down to a crawl. The family is together for weeks on end. Few people call, except friends. The world around me is a green-blue wonder of life.

Believe it or not, at such times, it is helpful to me to return to my own writing. Like many people, I write in order to think, and I’ve been down this trail of thought many times before. But I tend to forget what I’ve written, or thought, almost completely – even when it involves an insight that, when I first had it years ago, really helped me to put things in perspective.

Here’s what I found, again, when paging through my book Believing Cassandra, on page 87 of the new edition:

“Based on the evidence at hand … it seemed likely that the disconnection between global imperatives and societal responses was somehow built into the structure of the World, rather than issuing from any lack of data or correctable moral lapse on the part of humanity.

The situation, I realized, was fundamentally absurd.”

Absurdity, I went on to write, was an “enormously liberating idea,” because it released one from earnestness, while retaining the seriousness. Think of the great absurdist plays, like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: they combine deadly seriousness and comedic silliness in a wonderful – and strangely familiar– mix.

Of course the work of sustainability seems terribly important, not silly. It probably is terribly important. But how will we ever know for sure? Certainly not by counting the number of corporate sustainability reports.

“We know something about what has transpired on Planet Earth over the past millennia and we can make some good guesses, with the aid of science and computer models, about what is likely to happen during the next hundred. But we have no idea what it all means. Nor can we ever know. We are stuck in not knowing. Such a situation is the precise definition of absurdity …” (Believing Cassandra, p. 97)

While on vacation I had the chance to talk to an old family friend who, by chance, is also one of the world’s foremost ocean scientists. What did he make of the recent announcement (by the International Program on the State of the Ocean, http://www.stateoftheocean.org) that the oceans were “dying.” He didn’t dispute it. The science around what was driving extinction threats – global warming, acidification, overfishing, etc. – was sound. But his reflections quickly turned to the very long term.

Whenever the planet has gone through one of these big extinction events, he noted, it has been followed by a massive explosion of new life and new diversity. When the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago (the fifth major extinction event – humans are causing the sixth), mammals were tiny things running around on all fours trying to eat dinosaur eggs. That great catastrophe (from a dinosaur’s perspective) created the possibility for mammals to evolve. Now, we stand up, write scientific papers, and have conversations like this one.

In other words, no extinction … no us.

In the long run, it seems, it will all work out fine for planet Earth – no matter how things end up working out for us humans in this century. With a long enough time perspective, even the absurdity of our present situation just fades away.

However, this century is my century on this planet, as well as the century of my children. So I’m going to continue doing what I can to accelerate change for sustainability, and to stop – or at least slow down – the madness I perceive in the way we humans, as a species, use up resources, create waste, and generally tend to forget that we lived on a finite, living planet, where everyone deserves a fair chance at a fulfilling life.

But thanks to these summer reflections – and thanks also to the advice of my overworked colleague (get well!) – I’ll be doing it with a lighter heart.

“San-ten-ichi-ichi” — what March 11 means to Japan (so far)

I was on UN business in Korea this week, but on Friday, I took a day off to fly to Osaka and meet with friends Junko Edahiro and Riichiro Oda, at a hotel near Osaka’s Kansai airport. I wanted to find out how they were doing, and how the country was doing, since the last time I visited — which was the week before the earthquake. Both Junko and Rich are marathon runners; they looked the picture of health, and made me think once again about diversifying my exercise routine, which usually consists of pulling suitcases around in airports.

Junko is a well-known environmental advocate, writer, and translator. She wears many hats in her nation’s sustainability movement, including founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability. Sometimes Junko is teaching classes on how to combine three e’s:  learning English, empowering oneself, and doing environmental work (one of her companies is actually called “e’s”). Sometimes she is advising the prime minister on options for climate change policy — among many other activities. Riichiro, or “Rich,” is a systems expert and consultant who teaches corporations and agencies how to apply systems thinking; he also manages the administration of Junko’s various enterprises and initiatives, which she seems to create at the rate of about one per year.

Most recently, Junko founded a new Institute for the Study of Happiness, Economy, and Society. A few days before the multi-disaster comprised of a mega-earthquake, a giant tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, I had been in Japan to help her launch that Institute. Now, to say the least, the context within which that new institute is working has been utterly changed. I also went to Japan to find out how it has been changed, from Junko and Rich’s perspective.

*

First, the language:  most Japanese now refer to the disaster in the same way that most Americans (and indeed, most of the world) refer to the events of September 11, 2001.  It is just called “San-ten-ichi-ichi,” or literally, “three-dot-one-one.” And the region where the disaster struck, and where it is in fact still striking in the form of uncontrollable nuclear reactor failures, is called “the Affected Area.”

“March 11 marked the true end of the post-War period in Japan,” says Junko. “Before that point, the country believed that we could eventually get back to the kind of economic growth we had experienced before. March 11 crushed any hope of return to growth, and has forced the country to face the harsh reality.” A society-wide process of deep consideration is under way, among government and corporate leaders as well as the general public.

If anything, the disaster has increased interest in sustainability, resilience, systems thinking, and any possible avenue to new insight about how to reorient economy and society in the post-“San-ten-ichi-ichi” period. The highly efficient “just-in-time” inventory and production system proved fragile. There were no stocks or buffers of materials and parts on which to draw when production was disrupted. Recent cost-cutting of staff also eliminated much of the Japanese “playable force” staffing system, in which companies always had a spare team of people who could be deployed to reinforce those functions that needed extra help. This new awareness of “system effects” is helping Rich’s business return to his normal, overloaded state of busy-ness.

March 11 has also had a number of unexpected social effects:  marriages are on the rise, as couples move to cement their relationships quickly to increase a feeling of security about the future. Community-based activity is also increasing. But at the same time, the Tokyo area has also experienced a wave of divorce and strained relationships, as families split over the question of whether to remain there, or move farther away, to Osaka or the west of Japan. When it comes to radiation exposure and young children, “mothers want to lower their risk to zero.” Many are moving away from Tokyo with their children, leaving behind their husbands, who are attached to jobs and other social roles. In doing this, Japanese mothers are following the example of foreign embassies such as France, which sent some people home and moved everyone else to Osaka. (The irony of Junko’s choosing France as an example, given how defiantly reliant France is on nuclear power, is worth considering.)

It was shocking to hear Junko’s descriptions about how much — or rather, how little — information was being given to the Japanese people through the official channels. Because she is a professional translator, she had access to multiple English-language sources on the internet that explained far more about the nuclear disaster itself, the radiation leaks and risks, etc. than was ever available in the Japanese press.  Junko took it on herself to explain this information in everyday Japanese, and recruited a radiation expert from a research hospital (i.e., someone not tainted by TEPCO, the fully discredited electricity company that owned the Fukushima nuclear plant) to check what she wrote. This information she broadcast on her already popular e-newsletter, the readership of which grew significantly.

As a result of both the mismanagement of the crisis and the authorities’ poor handling of information about what had actually happened, the traditionally submissive relationship between the people and the national leadership has become deeply frayed. The crisis revealed, said Junko, that the government did not really trust the public.  Authorities controlled the release of information in order not to “create panic,” but in doing so created more nervousness and panic, which created more distrust, more information control, and more nervousness and panic, in a vicious circle. “It is easy to make a systems diagram of this,” she notes with a hint of irony, “and I have drawn many of them.”

Why was it so difficult for people to get information on radioactivity and other nuclear power issues in Japan, in the midst of a nuclear meltdown crisis? And why does Junko — whose bridge-building work usually attracts positive attention from groups as diverse as deep-green environmentalists and big-industry representatives — start getting attacked her efforts to publish more of the facts on what was actually happening at Fukushima?

“Nuclear power is an emotional or ideological issue here,” said Junko, whose academic training was in psychology. “People, especially men, tend to equate nuclear power with power generally.” I note recent psychological research showing that when people have strong ideological commitments, fact-based counter-arguments often just harden their positions. This explains how even in the face of a meltdown — one that will make a large area sited only 150 km north of Tokyo uninhabitable for generations — nuclear power still has rabid defenders in Japan.

The electricity shortages themselves, common in Tokyo but not in Osaka or elsewhere, act as a continuous reminder of the situation. The lighting in train stations and other public locations is noticeably dimmer, Junko tells me. But this “dark side” has a “bright side,” because “people are realizing that they did not need all that light in the place. The dimmer light is more comfortable.” The directives to reduce energy are causing a kind of social transformation, in everything from direct energy usage (turning off Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines) to the way people dress at work (men are encouraged to ditch their suits in favor of a “super-cool,” tie-less look that requires less air conditioning).

“People are rediscovering the meaning of ‘enough’, and remembering that ‘enough’ is also comfortable,” says Junko.  This reminds me of the concept of a “teachable moment,” which I learned practicing social work years ago:  the moment when defenses come down and the person can actually learn something that changes their view of themselves and the context of their lives. Junko grabbed onto that term immediately. “This is such a moment,” she says, “so I am doing a lot of teaching.”

But she is also doing a lot of learning. In March and April, her usual busy speaking schedule was largely canceled, and Junko suddenly had a lot of time on her hands. So she used it to pursue a ten-year-old dream:  to study the Chinese classics (such as the “Analects of Confucius”). She found a teacher, signed up for classes, and started studying … which, among other things, involves learning 52,800 Chinese characters. “In the Edo period,” Junko tells me, “children would learn these characters. The saying was, 100 characters, 100 times a day.” That is, they would repeat each character a hundred times, until they had memorized it, and they would do that with a hundred characters, every day — usually before even learning what those characters meant. After one and a half years, they knew them all, and could start reading. “I think it will take me a bit longer,” she says with an impish smile.

In dialogues, Junko and her teacher learned that they share a common sense of purpose, even though they are promoting different things. Both are teaching in order to change and improve Japanese society.

And if ever any society was faced with a “teachable moment,” it is Japan, now.

Revisiting the Big Push: A Strategy for Scaling Up Renewable Energy

While the Cancún climate talks were under way, I published several different versions of the following short essay, which first appeared as a blog post in “Triple Crisis,” then as a comment in Eurovoice newspaper’s “Comment:Visions,” and finally is slated for publication in the academic journal Solutions. Here is the Comment:Visions version:

In late 2009, the United Nations quietly published a strategy paper describing what may be the most powerful single intervention in the global endgame on carbon. (I led the writing of this paper as a consultant to the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, but the ideas largely came from other people, inside and outside the UN system.) Called the “Big Push,” the strategy builds around three key elements:

(1) Establishing feed-in tariff mechanisms globally (that is, guaranteed-purchase price supports for renewable energy)

(2) Investing heavily in renewable energy in the developing world through those mechanisms, and

(3) Providing an array of technical and policy support services to speed adoption and implementation.

Pursuing such a strategy would help the world decarbonize much more quickly, because it would accelerate the drop in price for renewables dramatically, using the enormous scales of the market for energy in developing countries — who urgently need clean, affordable energy services most. The logic here also builds on historical examples, such as the rapid drop in computer chip prices that was engineered by the U.S. government through its purchasing policy in the 1960s.

Economic modeling demonstrated that a “Big Push” strategy, while it looked expensive relative to the levels of aid and investment on offer in the global negotiating process, paid enormous dividends. Per capita incomes would rise much faster than a business-as-usual scenrio — in every region of the world. The poorest developing countries would experience a massive uplift in incomes, and even the already wealthy countries would get wealthier. The “Big Push” of initial subsidies would result in renewable energy becoming the default investment option (without any subsidy) in just 10-20 years, at a price affordable to all.

So why is this idea not on the table now?

First, the dollar figures probably look scary. Renewable energy will eventually become fully competitive with fossil fuels anyway; it’s just not happening fast enough. To make it happen “fast enough” requires placing orders for about a thousand extra gigawatts of solar energy (over what the market would generate on its own), and 100-200 extra GW of wind energy, as soon as possible, at an investment cost of USD 1 to 1.5 trillion, spread over ten years or so.

That sounds like a lot of money. But it equates to about 10 years of what was already pledged at Copenhagen ($100 billion annually), and only two years of U.S. defense spending. And the paybacks, once again, are enormous: improved incomes, better quality of life, and reduced climate risk, all around the world.

And it would happen about as fast as one could possibly imagine, in real political, economic, and technical terms. The “Big Push” would help renewable, carbon-free energy get over the hump of initial investment costs, after which the market would kick into overdrive, as it did for computer chips.

What about the risks? Deutsche Bank, working with the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, has already through the details of the investment scheme that would be necessary, including the insurance and risk management, in their “GET FiT” program (“Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariffs for Developing Countries”), published in April of 2010.

What about the capacity issues in these countries? There the Big Push strategy looks to the successful example of the Green Revolution, with its army of technical experts, extension workers, trainers, and support mechanisms of other kinds, which helped whole countries retool their agricultural systems with amazing speed.

And finally, what about the politics? How hard is to roll out a feed-in tariff program globally? The answer is, it’s already happening. Country by country, feed-in tariff mechanisms are already law (well over 50 countries already have it), or in the process of becoming law, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Egypt, Serbia, and Byelorussia.

The economics works. The technology is there. The political mechanisms are already moving into place. What’s lacking, then? Only a shared vision that we really can pull together, and push hard on a big problem.

There are obviously many things we need to do to create a carbon-neutral society. But for accelerating the process, I see no better candidate than the Big Push.

Link to Comment:Visions

Click here

Download original UN paper:

Click here

Bill McKibben on Climate Change: The Depressing Bad News, and the Amazing Power of People to Create Good News

Bill McKibben takes question on climate change in Sigtuna, Sweden

I’m attending a conference in Sweden called Climate Existence.  I’m here not as a speaker, for once; I’m here as a musician, scheduled to perform this evening. I’ll blog some of the highlights over the course of the day. Here is what was happening just as I walked in (late) to the event, in Sigtuna, Sweden:  Bill McKibben’s lecture, blogged in its entirety.

I walk in to the Climate Existence conference just as Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) is warming up … and talking about how quickly the planet is warming up.  Nineteen countries set new temperature records this past summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Pakistan set the all-time temperature record for all of Asia.  Russia’s heat wave alone reduced

The atmosphere is 4-5% “wetter” (more humid) than it was just a few decades ago. All that wet air translates to a lot more rain.  This creates much greater risk of torrential downpours and flooding events.

Up by the Khyber Pass, which usually gets 1 meter of rain per year, about 4 meters fell in the space of a week.  Stream flow gauges recorded stream flow more than 50% greater than the previous peak in 1929 … before the gauges themselves were washed away.  The result was the drowning of Pakistan in geopolitically destabilizing floods, watched in horror around the world.

That’s the result of just 1 degree average warming.  We are locked in to getting another degree.  And if we are not able to stop burning fossil fuel far more quickly than we’re planning now, we’re going to get 4-5 degrees.

“The bottom line is, we do not want to find out what 4-5 degrees looks like.  There’s no reason to think we can sustain our civilization under those conditions,” says McKibben, for reasons ranging from sea level rise to depressed food production — 40-50% less grain production, for example.

McKibben’s Conclusions, his interpretation of the “Scientific Bottom Line”:

“(1) We need a very, very quick transition off fossil fuel.

(2) Even if we do that, we’ll have to change a lot of other things to adapt to those changes we’ve already locked in.

(3) If we cannot make that transition off fossil fuel, then the temperature will likely rise enough that effective adaptation becomes impossible.”

“That puts in place a set of parameters that have to especially with speed.”

Continue reading Bill McKibben on Climate Change: The Depressing Bad News, and the Amazing Power of People to Create Good News

Eco-House, Normal House

AtKisson House from the front - workers install the final piece, grating to a French balcony

A Little Weblog Essay about Our New House, and its Various Environmental and Sustainable Features and Benefits

This week my family moves into a new house that we have just finished building — or rather, that the builders have just finished building, financed by the proceeds on the sale of our previous apartment (we sold it a year and a half ago, just before the financial crisis, and have been renting a little place since then).  We have the additional help of a loan from our local bank, to whom we will be paying interest for years and years to come.  But at the moment, looking at the now-complete physical realization of a dream, this financial commitment seems more than worth it.

The house is our design (drawn by my wife, Kristina AtKisson), from floor to roof, and we’ve tried think “eco” and “sustainable” every step of the way.  At the same time, we wanted to build a “normal” house.  This has always been our ambition:  to demonstrate how normal it is to be sustainable.

So, from the outside, there is nothing about this house that says “green.”  You can’t tell by looking at it.

What’s so green and sustainable about this house?  Here comes the virtual tour …

A Good Piece of Land

We start with the lot itself. We chose a southwest-facing slope, which means we will get the benefit sunlight for much of the year.  This will bring needed heat and light in spring and fall, reducing our energy costs.  (Nobody in Sweden gets much sun in the winter.)  You can bet we’ll be growing some vegetables, probably in terraced plots.  And right behind our house, on the top of the hill, is preserved natural land.  Our backyard is berries, trees, a small pond, and the little forts built by day-care and school kids who come there to play.

Efficiency in Overall Form

Then there is the shape of the house:  cubic, with a peaked roof, which is close to spherical as you can get (a sphere being the best shape from an energy-and-thermodynamics perspective).

Sunlight Streaming Through the Windows

On sun-facing side, there are lots of highly-efficient triple-glazed doors and windows to let in that sunlight when it’s around, and hold in the heat when it’s not.  Those windows are also “bio-clean” glass, which means we’re using a tiny bit of bio-mimicry in that product, as the structure of the glass will naturally shed a lot of the dirt that would otherwise accumulate.

Good Wood

The house is made of wood, and the wood itself comes — to the highest degree we could specify — from Swedish forests managed under Forestry Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards.  Most of the framing etc. is FSC certified; other bits, like the floor, are from vendors who use FSC lumber, but have not bothered to get formal certification (which costs them money).  About three-quarters of Sweden’s commercial forests are managed in this way.

The ComfortZone heat exchanger, next to the downstairs shower

Heat from … Heat

To heat the water for showers, laundry, and the heating pipes that run through the cement under the wood floors, we have a heat exchanger that pulls the warmth out of the air and wastewater and re-circulates that warmth into the house (and adds new heat as necessary from electricity). When we showed the specs on this unit to our builder, he was amazed:  it has the same efficiency as a groundwater-based heat exchange system, which extracts heat from deep wells.  We’ll occasionally add more heat to the air with an efficient, enclosed, wood-burning fireplace as well (also eco-labeled); and that heat will also get re-circulated through this system.

Not “Passive,” but “Active” — with Almost the Same Efficiency

We decided not to go for the increasingly popular “passive house” design, which means your home heating needs (though not your hot water) are covered by body heat and waste heat from the lights and machines in your house.  For one thing, we don’t have so many lights or machines on usually; and the ones we have are highly efficient.  We didn’t want to be dependent on these secondary heat sources.

But we do aim to achieve the same energy consumption levels of a passive house, by keeping the thermostats lower and generally thinking a lot about energy consumption.  And our walls are extra thick, extra tight, and extra insulated.  (Source of the insulation material:  recycled glass.)  The walls are not quite as thick as for a passive house, but that was a trade-off we made in order to increase the light coming in through the windows.  (I confess:  quite a number of decisions were made with aesthetics and comfort in mind first, and environmental performance second.)

Somewhere, a Windmill is Making our Electrons … but Someday the Sun Will Too

As our source of electricity, we purchase certified wind energy off the grid.  We do this through a major supplier, rather than smaller, alternative wind cooperative (there are a number of these in Sweden), in order to add our voice to the “normal” market demand signal:  “Make more renewable energy, please!”

But we’re thinking ahead, and we had the builders prepare the house for future installation of solar photovoltaic panels.  The hookups are all ready; we just decided to build the house first, and take our time with studying the solar energy options and watching how the technology develops.  (I’ve heard some really exciting things about new solar cells.)

Eco-labeled kitchen, and eco-labeled fireplace

A Green Kitchen

Actually, it’s white, and stainless steel … but all the cabinets, counter, the faucet etc. are officially eco-labeled (“environmentally marked” as we say in Swedish).  So are the windows and the front door and anything else that we could find with an eco-labeled option available.

And All the Best, Efficient, Ultra-Normal Equipment

We installed the usual (for our part of the world) washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove — and they all have the highest energy ratings available on the Swedish market.  The fridge has a futuristic looking “Save Energy” reminder built right into the door. The dryer we’ll use only when line-drying doesn’t work, and the dishwasher … well, I’m the lazy one in the family who wanted a dishwasher in the first place, and produced research data showing that the total energy consumption and environmental impact per dish was lower than with hand-washing.

Don’t Forget the Sweaters and Socks and …

Really, we like wearing sweaters inside in the winter.  It’s cozy.  It’s good for you.  And T-shirt-temperatures inside a house just feel weird when there is eighty centimeters of snow outside your window. There are lots of other little tricks to reducing energy demand, and we try to use all of them, like not draining all the bath water out right away, but waiting until it gives off all its heat first.  (The heat exchanger grabs even more heat from the room-temperature water before it departs the premises, re-circulating even more heat back into the house.)

So, What’s *Not* So Eco About this House?

Well, building a house is hardly an energy efficient, environmentally friendly affair. Trees get cut down.  Rock gets blown up and rubble gets moved around with heavy machinery. Delivery trucks come, garbage trucks go, and workers come and go in their large, petroleum-driven vehicles.

And there’s plenty of stuff in our house that is not exactly on the approved list among hard-core greens.  Take the aluminum roof:  it’s durable, it looks great, but we don’t know where the aluminum came from — and we do know that wherever it came from, it had a huge environmental impact.  (Industry people tell us the aluminum in the roof is from recycled sources, but we haven’t verified that yet.)  Some folks would also scoff at the foam in the rear support wall, a petroleum product; bit it also happens to be a great insulator, and it’s keeping that carbon dioxide bound up for as long as the house stands.

Neighbors to us who built even greener used organic insulation; but we chose the ordinary mineral variety, scared off by one friend’s bad experience with rotting insulation, and pleased to learn that the source of the insulation fibers was recycled glass.  “Organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.”

Of course the cement for the foundation has its big carbon emissions price.  But really, the biggest climate criminal in our house-building story is not the house.

It’s the car.

I’ve written about our car before:  an 85% ethanol-driven Ford Flexifuel.  We made so many extra trips in that car during the building process — because we lived farther away from school temporarily, and because we had so many extra errands to run — that I suspect a serious analysis would show our increased car use to be one of the largest sources of increased carbon emissions, even compared to other parts of the building process.  After we have moved in, and the house shifts into “use” phase (see below), the car is sure to be our biggest source of environmental impact, because the impact of the house itself — driven on renewable energy — will be pretty close to zero.

That’s why my wife wants to just get rid of the car.  Again, I’m the resistant one, arguing (okay, I’m stretching it) that we at least need to able to respond to emergencies, get to the fairly-distant hospital quickly, etc.  Maybe I just like knowing that I can go grocery shopping at 8:30 at night, when the buses are few and far between.

But we’re seriously looking at abandoning the car once we move back into our neighborhood and settle back into our regular routines of bus, bike, and walking transport.  Or (this is more realistic, given my confessed laziness), getting a plug-in electric hybrid once they come on the market.  In any case, we want our car-related carbon emissions, already reduced thanks to our Swedish-Brazilian ethanol, to go down drastically.

Because It’s the Use Phase that Really Counts

In life cycle analysis of consumer products, it’s very often the use phase — the many years of actual living in a house, wearing a garment, driving a car — that has by far the largest environmental impact.  We’re going to estimate our climate impact for the actual building process, and take steps to “neutralize” it as best we can.  But we’ll focus mostly on living in ways that reduce our climatic and environmental impact in the long run — not just with regard to the house, but also with what we buy, and what daily choices we make.

The distance to my office, for example, is going to be dramatically reduced … to about 15 meters.  We’ve built a small free-standing cottage in back of the lot, by the forest, that I’ll use as my main office and studio.  Wind energy will drive my computers and internet link (though not the internet itself, of course), and I’ll be running more and more of my trainings and meetings via the web, from there.

In Conclusion …

We’re not trying to be eco-saints; we’re trying to be eco-normal, in a suburban Swedish context.  The whole point of building this house was to be able to live closer to the natural world (I love having a forest right out the back door), and closer to our sustainability values.  It was a big investment, but we also think the overall running costs in financial terms will be the same, or lower, compared to where we were living before.

And of course, the quality of life will be higher.  Our daughters are excited to have their own rooms for the first time.  And I’m looking forward to waking up every day in my wife’s truly lovely architectural design, looking out at a giant old oak and a mature (tasty) apple tree, in a community of good friends and neighbors.

Both Kristina and I are well aware, maybe even achingly aware, that what is super-efficient “eco-normal” for us — a small-to-medium sized house by modern Swedish standards, in a normal Stockholm suburban area — is still super-luxury compared to most of the world.  So this house, the dream that took over two years to convert into a reality, will be our “home base” for our continued work to try to help make that world greener, fairer … and hopefully, more sustainable.

The Asian Brown Cloud Up Close and Personal

On a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, 24 March 2009, I caught a direct visual impression of the Asian Brown Cloud — brown haze below, blue sky above. I immediately used the resulting images in the keynote speech I gave there, in two slides, as part of a section on the need for good indicators.  “Sometimes we can see what’s happening with our own eyes … and sometimes we can’t.”

Climate Change Adaptation: from Big Taboo to Business Opportunity

Read my recent article on climate change adaptation generated a surprising amount of response. I will be focusing more and more on climate change adaptation issues in times ahead, both because I believe we all need to be paying more attention to it, and because my professional work with clients like the Nile Basin Initiative is requiring it.  Here is the link to the full article:  Link >>