Thursday, December 28, 2017

Climate 2017: the good, the bad and the tragic

This summary of climate stories in 2017 includes a few surprises, including that transportation now is the major source of greenhouse gases in the US thanks to coal fired power plants retiring.

The 10 Most Important U.S. Climate Stories in 2017 - Climate Central

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Find recipes to make with your food waste

Food waste is a major source of greenhouse gases. Think about all the energy that went into making it and transporting it. If you don’t use it or compost it, it will likely turn into methane in a landfill.

Here’s a tool to help you find recipes to use up your food waste.

Inoculating trees to suck up pollutants

Bioremediation is the process of cleaning up pollution using living organisms. It can be a more efficient way to mine metals than digging them up. Plant water hyacinths in a polluted lake, let them grow and then harvest them, taking the pollutants with them. The concentration of metals in the dry plants is higher than ore.

Now it appears we can inoculate poplar trees with bacteria that increases their uptake of pollutants like TCE, a nasty chemical used in degreasing, textiles and even drycleaning. The article doesn’t talk about what happens next, what to do with the toxic trees. Remember, there is no “away.”

The value of restoring our lands

According to a recent WRI report, restoring our forests and agricultural lands has an amazing return on investment

Studies estimate that every $1 invested in restoring degraded forests can yield between $7 and $30 in economic benefits (Verdone and Seidl 2017). The impact extends well beyond the environmental sphere: Restoring 150 million hectares of degraded agricultural land could generate $85 billion in net benefits to national and local economies, and provide $30–40 billion a year in extra income for smallholder farmers and additional food for close to 200 million people (GCEC 2014)
The report explains what has gotten in the way of making these investments and how we can turn it around.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Give a gift to the planet too

Whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year, you’ve undoubtedly generated greenhouse gases. But you can erase that damage with one small donation toward a carbon offset. This article explains why your little contribution matters and points you toward reputable resources. Add one to your list of charities.

You can calculate your GHG emissions here:
If you traveled by plane, be sure to count that too. It may represent more than your household emissions.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tesla save Australia from brownout

When an Australian coal plant crashed and unexpectedly went offline, Tesla batteries picked up the slack in milliseconds, proving that battery storage will be able to level out renewable power.

Refugee homes rebuilt with plastic bottles

Necessity is the mother of invention, it’s said. So this man built a home for his grandmother in Algeria out of plastic bottle trash. And then he built 24 more.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Major corporate hold-outs turning their backs on climate denial

The last bastion of corporate climate denial is crumbling, putting pressure on industry associations to change their message.
ExxonMobil made waves across the blogosphere last week when it criticized the influential lobbying group ALEC for thwarting action on climate change — even though the company is itself an ALEC member. Now it looks like a leading global coal company is coming over to the “green” side, too. Earlier this week, global mining giant BHP Billitonwarned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and two other coal-friendly organizations that it will pull its membership over their failure to link energy policy with climate action.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Two new members of the Alliance

The Sustainability Alliance was designed to represent all the major systems of society (like Food/hunger, Water, Waste recovery, Energy/climate, Nature) by involving non-profits who work in those systems. But in order to keep our meetings to a reasonable size so we can get things done, we have formed two types of relationships:
  • Non-profit members that represent a main system in society that we depend upon who are core to our work
  • Affiliate members who are interested in a piece of one of those systems or who are supportive and want to be involved or stay connected to some degree and participate as appropriate (eg, the Yavapai Food Council, Sedona Chamber, City of Sedona).
We now have a new one of each!

New System Representative: Oak Creek Watershed Council has joined the Alliance, representing Water. They are linked in to a number of critical county, state and federal programs like the Coconino National Forest and Arizona DEQ. Sharon Masek Lopez, a hydrologist, will be their representative to our meetings.

New Affiliate: Healthy World Sedona focuses on a plant-based diet and as such represents a subset of Food but their work affects many other systems like climate, energy, waste and nature. They offer an annual VegFest and in 2018 are offering a conference for healthcare professionals. Jon Thompson (JT), who is also sits on the Sedona City Council, will be our liaison to their organization.

Who’s taking water from Arizona farmers? You might be shocked.

Drought stricken California farmers buying up land in drought-stricken Arizona to grow their crops here.
Saudi dairy firm buys huge track of land to grow thirsty alfalfa only to ship the hay overseas.
Mega-millionaires seeking tax credits.

What’s happening to agriculture in Arizona? What’s happening to our water supplies? What’s going to happen to our farming families?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Wave energy: “Sea Horse” turbines designed with dolphins in mind

After Fukushima, Japan has been looking for alternative forms of energy. It appears they’ve just made a breakthrough with the Sea Horse, turbines designed to catch the energy of breakers. The engineers used Biomimicry, making the fins similar to those on dolphins. The can place them along breaker walls. If even 1% of the cost were used, it could be equivalent to 10 nuclear power plants. The energy density of waves is ten times wind.

You have to sign a pledge to visit Palau

Palau is a nation of fragile islands. Rather than allow themselves to be overrun with tourists, they plan to control the number of visitors. And now those visitors have to sign a pledge:
To enter the country, everyone must sign off on promises to “tread lightly, act kindly, and explore mindfully.”
 Palau Becomes First Country to Require 'Eco-Pledge' Upon Arrival - National Geographic

Monday, December 18, 2017

Israel puts forth a new definition of sustainable business

At a conference this past November, major businesses put forth a new way of thinking about sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR). Rather than the vague notion that businesses can do well by doing good, they are now thinking in terms of innovating for a good life and linking to the U.N. Sustainability Development Goals.

“We chose the theme of Innovation for Good Life, because we believe that this is the essence of CSR today: the way businesses contribute to good life”, said Momo Mahadav, Maala’s CEO. “I believe that this is the step forward from discussing whether businesses are good or bad or whether they mean right or wrong. The question of good life is more concrete and could be measured in terms of the value that businesses create”.
CSR (sometimes also referred to as Corporate Responsibility which implies it’s not just about social issues) and sustainability/sustainable business are similar concepts but not precisely the same.  CSR encourages business to use their power to make the world better, but there are no science-based targets. Make the world better without any clarity of when we’re done, when we’ve done enough, when we’ve succeeded.  That’s what sustainability brings. There’s a difference between striving to make the world less bad vs striving to reach a point where people have a good life within the limits of nature. For that reason, I find sustainability a better standard than CSR.

However in Israel, it appears at least some businesses are linking to the Sustainable Development Goals which goes a long way toward addressing this deficiency of CSR. In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call it as long as we are using science-based targets to understand what we’re aiming for.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A market where everything is free

Imagine Freecycle as a place, a swap meet where everything is free. It’s going on in Independence, Virginia.

This approach saves people money and may build community. I wonder if it affects charitable thrift shops.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Reducing food waste saves money

London encouraged their residents to reduce food waste. The process was simple; all they did was to educate people about the issue and how to reduce waste through actions like proper food storage. What was the result?

For every $1.34 the boroughs spent on the initiative, they saved $10.71 in avoided waste management costs, and households saved $112.43 on food they otherwise would have purchased and eventually thrown away. 
The municipality presumably saved money through their franchise hauling costs and management of the municipal landfill. In locations that don’t have franchise hauling (where the municipality negotiates a hauler contract for a geographic area; households don’t choose their hauler) or where the landfill is privately held, this savings would only go to customers if they have the option of having smaller bins or fewer pick-ups.

Dear global mayors: Solving food waste is money in the bank -

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Circular Economy, Chinese style

In nature, the waste of one organism is food for another. Waste = Food. Decades ago, the concept of Industrial Ecology emerged, where industrial parks were designed such that the waste from one factory was input to another. 

Now China is adopting this form of industrial symbiosis. Here's an example:

A fertilizer factory is fed with vinasse, a byproduct of sugar, from a nearby beer brewery. A paper and pulp plant receives scrap wood from a nearby wood factory as input, while providing sludge for fertilizer, green mud for building materials, white sludge for a citric acid factory and a cement plant, wood chips for a charcoal factory, fly ash for a cement plant, and waste hot water for an aquaculture mill.
At the Sustainability Alliance, we believe there are missed opportunities here to develop small businesses that take our hard-to-recycle waste streams and make value-added products. Imagine a business, for example, that cuts wine and beer bottles to make glasses so that visitors can buy as a memento of their favorite local brew. Imagine engaging residents at senior centers to make sturdy and colorful shopping bags out of dog food bags, birdseed bags, and horse feed bags. We offer a Sustainable Entrepreneurship Microloan for Schools to encourage kids to experiment with potential business models. Talk to us if you have an idea.

What we can learn from bats to unsnarl traffic jams

Increasingly scientists are looking to nature for inspiration about how to solve our human problems. Bats need to get a bazillion creatures through a small opening in a hurry to overwhelm potential predators. Similarly when there’s an accident on I-whatever, we need to move a bunch of vehicles through a bottleneck before someone gets ticked off and shoots someone else in road rage, causing yet another accident.

As it turns out, bats are better at this evolutionary necessity than we. How do they do it? They pay attention to where all their fellow travelers are and keep an equal distance between them. In driving terms, this means you should pay as much attention to the car behind you as in front and keep an equal distance between them. Maybe soon adaptive cruise control and self-driving cars will help us be as smart as bats.

Math Says You're Driving Wrong and It's Slowing Us All Down - WIRED

GOA says climate change is costing us too much and we should do something

In the classic holiday movie, Miracle on 34th Street, the Federal Government, in particular the Postal Service, is used to prove that Santa Claus is real because he gets mail.

So it may be another Christmas Miracle that the Government Accountability Office says climate change is real and it’s costing the US a fortune so we should take action:

As an initial step in establishing government-wide priorities to manage climate risks, we recommended that the Executive Office of the President use information on economic effects to help identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses,” the GAO said.
Climate Inaction is Fiscally Irresponsible, says GAO - Triple Pundit

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

225 huge investors pressuring companies to address climate change

A flock of major investors representing over $26 trillion are going after the 100 companies most responsible for climate change, driving them to take these three actions:

  1. Implement a strong governance framework, which clearly articulates the board's accountability and oversight of climate change risk.
  2. Take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their value chain, consistent with the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  3. Provide enhanced corporate disclosure in line with the final recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and sector-specific GIC Investor Expectations on Climate Change, when applicable, to enable investors to assess the robustness of companies' business plans against a range of climate scenarios, including "well below" 2C and improve investment decision-making.
The initiative is called Climate Action 100+.

DELL fights ocean plastic, commits to 100% sustainable packaging by 2020

Dell is joining other firms to create a supply chain of ocean plastics. The statistics about ocean plastic are horrifying, so much so that it’s galvanized international action. Dell has committed to having 100% sustainable packaging in about 2 years.

 In this time of year when gift packages are flying around the country, think about what’s in yours and how you ship it. Fast shipping has a harsher footprint.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Finding the right sustainability tool for you

I continue to be amazed by the rate at which the professional sustainability field is becoming more sophisticated and standardized. This is largely invisible to the general public but is a big deal especially for large corporations.

The downside of this work is a proliferation of tools to help you.

The Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan has just made it a lot easier to find the right tool. SHIFT TOOLS is focused on business but many of those practices also apply to municipalities; and they are working on having similar resources for cities/communities.

You can search for tools that help you:

  • Set targets and goals (see who's measuring what and what their targets are)
  • Develop a road map and see where your organization is in its maturity
  • Report on your performance
  • Develop a business case/find the return on investment for certain actions.

Check it out. You can search for tools by industry, issue (water, climate, etc.), free or fee, reviewer's stars, job function, etc.

I just sat in on a webinar by Saman Baghestani, one of the developers, and he highlighted some specific tools he liked. So if you want a short list, look at some of these:

  • Pivot Goals shows what different companies are tracking and reporting, what their goals are
  • Embedding Project lets you create your own "casebook" of goals related to 12 thresholds
  • Future Fit lays out how to create long-term business value
  • Project Breakthrough has pitch decks that help you make the business case
  • Science Based Targets Initiative help you set climate related targets based on good science
  • Global Opportunity Explorer shows solutions and markets tied to the Sustainable Development Goals

  • B-Corp (certification)
  • CDP (climate, water)
  • RILA (retail)
  • Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability
  • Sustainability Scorecard

  • Reporting Exchange (part of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development)

  • Business Case for Sustainability (by International Finance Corp)
  • Business Case Calculator (downloadable spreadsheets to calculate payback, internal rate of return, etc.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Survey results: What should sustainability priorities be in N. AZ/Verde Valley

By Darcy Hitchcock, co-founder of the Sustainability Alliance

In November, 2017, the Sustainability Alliance conducted a survey of our organizations’ members to see what they felt the sustainability priorities should be in northern Arizona/Verde Valley. This was not a general survey of the public; we wanted input from people who are knowledgeable about aspects of sustainability.

We based the primary question on internationally agreed-upon Sustainable Development Goals, a framework used around the world to measure progress toward a sustainable society. But depending where you live, some goals are more relevant than others. So we hoped this survey would help us understand what priorities might best be pursued here in this region. The results can indicate to our elected officials and non-profits what some of our members think should be goals to pursue as well as whether they are satisfied with current efforts or think more should be done.

While the poll is still open, there were 46 respondents at the time this article is written. Please note, this was not a scientific survey and the sample size small, so the results should be used only to inform, not to make decisions. That said, there were some intriguing findings. This article summarizes what we learned.

Are we doing enough?

We started by asking whether the respondents felt we were doing enough. The question was posed: “To what degree do you think the Verde Valley/Northern AZ should be pursuing sustainable practices? (Ex: recycling, living wage jobs, renewable energy, water conservation.)”  The vast majority of the respondents, over 90 percent, said “We should be doing quite a bit more.”


What should our priorities be?

The main question in the survey asked respondents to choose up to 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that we should set as local goals and then pursue. The SDGs are goals that are agreed to by virtually all nations, both developed and developing, so the issues and actions tend to differ based on where you are. For example, “Clean water and sanitation” in the developing world involves setting up toilets; in this region, it’s largely an issue of outstripping water resources with use and development. Communities and individual organizations can choose the SDGs most relevant to them and then have their efforts ‘roll up’ to international efforts. Just like rowing, you go farther faster when you synchronize your strokes.

The following chart organizes the SDGs into categories, Economic, Social and Environmental, with the most important goal in that category first after the average of that category. Of course, all these goals are interconnected (eg, an economic goal can have direct impacts on the other categories.) But it can still be helpful to clump goals into related categories to see relationships.

Among all categories, the SDG goals that got the most number of votes were, in declining order:
1.     Quality education
2.     Sustainable communities
3.     Clean water
4.     Climate action

Overall, social and environmental issues averaged somewhat higher votes than did the economic area. This might be because the social/environmental issues seemed more urgent and could  undermine our economy, or perhaps because of demographics, the respondents' perspective largely as retirees and some part-time residents.

Regarding social issues in the community, quality education, sustainable communities and good health/well-being topped the list. We would like to see more schools and life-long-learning centers embrace sustainability science and practices and teach it to their participants. Sustainable communities may have gotten a lot of attention because of  frustrations over transportation. We certainly hope that Sedona's current work on their Land Use Development Code and Building Codes will exemplify best practices in Smart Growth and green building.

Since hunger, poverty and decent work show up on the chart as economic but are also social issues, you can infer that these interconnected issues are seen by the respondents as the next tier to address, along with reducing inequalities/homelessness.

For the environment, climate action and clean energy, two interconnected goals, topped the list. We should assess our climate-related risks (most likely worse droughts, fires and floods) and plan for them. We could also be doing more to encourage the expansion of renewable energy and alternative transportation (better tourist-based transportation options, electric charging stations, neighborhood electric vehicles, etc.) Current efforts to reduce food waste also play an important role. (To see a list of well-researched climate-stabilizing strategies and their economic returns, go to Drawdown.)

On the economic front, responsible production and consumption got the largest votes by far.  We could start with more convenient recycling (tied to services like Sedona Recycles, which has one of the highest recovery rates in the region) and composting. We could also be encouraging entrepreneurs to come up with products they could make from our waste streams. Leading-edge concepts in this field include the Circular Economy (where everything used either goes back into another product or is composted/consumed, going back to nature) and Biomimicry (where we use nature as an inspiration for design of products and processes more efficiently and safely.) 

Some respondents reported that they voted for some practices with the assumption that other practices would be embedded. For example, hunger is often a function of poverty, so they may have voted for Zero Poverty and used their other vote for something all together different. So this chart pairs goals that could be considered directly interconnected in a nested or cause-effect relationship. From this analysis, we end up with these being top four potential priorities:

  1. Sustainable communities + health/well-being (Logic: Sustainable communities typically have cleaner air, more opportunities to know your neighbors and also are more walkable. So sustainable communities lead to better physical and emotional health.)
  2. Climate action + clean/renewable energy (Logic: Renewable energy is a critical piece but not the only piece of climate action.)
  3. Quality education + reduced inequalities (Logic: It's widely assumed that access to quality education improves opportunities for the under-privileged should reduce inequality as long as jobs are available that meet their education levels.)
  4. Clean water+life below water (Logic: We are all affected by the quality of water—humans and non-humans; riparian zones and wetlands help clean our water. We are all affected by dropping river flows and aquifers.)
Note: We end up with over 100% when some respondents voted for both of the paired goals.

What needs to happen now?

Like many studies or surveys, this poll raises as many questions as it answers. More work would need to be done to refine the priorities. This survey is only a partial snapshot. Some of these goals can be nested into a hierarchy so respondents might have factored those relationships into their answers. (For example, renewable energy is a part of climate action, so voting for climate action might have been intended as a vote for both.) So it would be helpful to follow up this survey with focus groups or interviews to understand the thinking behind the choices.

If you read our Sustainability Assessment Report to Sedona or recent blog posts, you’ll know we are urging the municipalities in the region to set broad sustainability targets for several reasons:

DEFINITION: Sustainability targets and goals show an understanding of and commitment to sustainability. The targets should represent a fully sustainable state (often framed as zero ___ or 100% ___: zero waste, zero hunger, climate neutral, 100% living wage jobs, 100% renewable energy.) These may seem impossible to reach in the moment but are necessary for a fully sustainable society. They’re a way of declaring we don't intend to leave a depleted world to our kids.

Those targets should be paired with time-limited, interim goals. For example, over 50 cities in the US have set goals for reaching 100% renewable energy by a particular date. Those goals are in service of a target which might be expressed as ‘climate neutral’ or ‘stabilizing the climate’ which will also necessitate changes to transportation, buildings and diet as well as hardening our infrastructure against climate-related impacts.

CREDIBILITY: If we want to be known as a sustainable destination, we need something more concrete than vague references in the Community Plan and a defunct commission. Inspirational targets and progress toward goals are a key piece of public communication that we currently lack. (For a good example of another small, tourist-based community, look at Whistler’s sustainability goals.)

ALIGNMENT: Once we have sustainability targets, different groups can organize around making these goals happen. The municipality, non-profits, businesses and citizens all have to play a role. The long-term sustainability targets can also put individual programs into context. Take for example the franchise hauling debacle in Sedona last year. If it had been clear we wanted to move toward zero waste, then perhaps more options beyond franchise hauling would have been considered and the ultimate intent to the community could have been more clear.

We also need a process to engage other groups and individuals to have a larger conversation about how we would define our sustainability vision.

Hopefully Sedona and the Sedona/Verde Valley Tourism Council will soon follow up on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council assessment results done last year. Perhaps our recommended next steps can be part of their scope of work.

(For more on best practices regarding sustainability targets and goals, please see these two blog posts for our thoughts: “Measuring Sustainability: Making sense of all the terms” and “What Sedona must do to be credible as a sustainable destination.")

Who responded?

The vast majority of the respondents were from the Sedona/Village of Oak Creek area.
If any community is curious, we can filter the results for you, just showing what your residents answered.

The non-profit members of the Alliance sent out a link to the survey to their respective members. In the chart below, you can see which organizations’ members were represented. Of course, there is overlap; individuals are often involved with multiple organizations. Over 75 percent of the respondents were associated with Keep Sedona Beautiful, but members of Yavapai Food Council and Sedona Recycles were also particularly well represented.



How do they stay informed?

We were curious how the respondents liked to stay informed about sustainability-related efforts in the region. Electronic newsletters from the local non-profits are, by far, the preferred method, followed by websites and presentations, then word of mouth. Print materials were the least preferred—how sustainable!

Artificial wetlands can clean wastewater

The following information is courtesy of Ron Hubert in Flagstaff....

I did some work years ago promoting the sustainability of constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment, primarily for rural areas, although the approach can be used anywhere, eg, a constructed wetland treats all the waste water at Flagstaff’s Arboretum, and a large constructed wetland provides secondary treatment for a large city waste treatment plant in Phoenix.  I think the best book on the subject (by a friend of mine, now semi-retired) is Constructed Wetlands in the Sustainable Landscape by Craig Campbell and Michael Ogden, available on Amazon.  

I also designed / engineered a constructed wetland for a school in Lakeside, CA as a practicum project for my graduate studies in Conservation Ecology at NAU.  The EPA also recommends constructed wetlands as the preferred waste water treatment approach for rural cities and areas where the city wants to provide economical sewage treatment to homes widely and thinly disbursed.  The EPA has published a manual providing all the engineering and regulatory details.  One of the benefits of city wastewater treatment by constructed wetlands (besides lower costs) is that preliminary studies show good results in reducing endocrine disrupting compounds through the action of water plant root absorption and photo remediation from sunshine. (see some references below)  Also, several years ago a professor at NAU was doing some research on this issue.  I don’t know the current status of this research, but could follow up.

One of the national luminaries in this area is John Todd, who passed away just this last August.  You can find lots of great system design ideas in his writings and projects.

Hemming, J.H., W.T. Waller, M. Chow, N. Denslow, and B. Venables. 2001. Assessment of the efficacy of a constructed wetland to reduce or remove wastewater effluent toxicity and estrogenicity using biomarkers in fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas Rafinesque, 1820). Environ Toxicol and Chem. 20(10):2268:2275

Quinonez-Diaz MJ, Karpiscak MM, Ellman ED, Gerba CP., (Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, University of Arizona), Removal of pathogenic and indicator microorganisms by a constructed wetland receiving untreated domestic wastewater.  J Environ Sci Health Part A Tox Hazard Subst Environ Eng. 2001;36(7):1311-20

Gray, James; Sedlak, David.  Fate of estrogenic hormones in a constructed wetland with dense plant growth.  Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 24th Annual Meeting, November 13, 2003.

Chapman, H. 2003:  Removal of endocrine disruptors by tertiary treatments and constructed wetlands in subtropical Australia.  Water Science Technology, 47(9): 151-156.

Kolodziej E.P., Gray J.L. and Sedlak D.L. (2003) Quantification of steroid hormones with pheromonal properties in municipal wastewater effluent.Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 22, 2622-2629.

Bad Bedding: Things to consider when buying and disposing of mattresses

Whether you're a hotelier or you're just wanting a better sleep, your choice of mattress matters.

  • Did you know there are certifications for "green mattresses" that aren't loaded with odd chemicals?
  • Did you know there are options for how to dispose of your old one? 
  • Did you know you may be able to recycle the mattress wrap at the grocery store (if they send their plastic bags to Trex or to a company making a similar product)?  
Here are some interesting resources:

What's special about green mattresses and related certifications:

How to donate or dispose of your mattress:

Over 50 cities sign Chicago Climate Charter

cities are taking climate matters into their own hands. At the North American Climate Summit, over 50 mayors representing tens of millions of people, have committed to this charter. It’s a simple document, a page of Whereas statements and a page with these commitments:

By signing the Chicago Climate Charter, cities are pledging to:
  • Achieve a percent reduction in carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement; 
  • Quantify, track and publicly report city emissions, consistent with standards
  • and best practices of measurement and transparency;
  • Advocate alongside other mayors for greater local authority and flexibility to develop policies and local laws that empower cities to take aggressive action on climate;
  • Recognize and include groups traditionally underrepresented in climate policy;
  • Incorporate the realities of climate change and its impacts into local infrastructure and emergency planning through strategies of adaptation and resilience;
  • Support strong regional, state and federal policies and partnerships, as well as private sector initiatives, that incentivize the transition to a new climate economy; and
  • Partner with experts, communities, businesses, environmental justice groups, advocates and other allies to develop holistic climate mitigation and resilience solutions.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Our plastics are about to come back to haunt us

Plastic. So handy, light, doesn’t break. We use it, toss it and the recyclers send it off to China. No more. China is closing its ports to foreign waste. Welcome to the land of “There Is No Away.” You can’t throw things “away.” You just throw them into someone else's backyard.

We rapidly need to find a solution or all your plastic recycling will end up in landfills. Options include:

  • Adding a deposit to all plastics that would cover the cost of recycling. (This would have the additional benefit of giving plastic trash value, encouraging its collection not only by the customers but also by poor people who can benefit from the extra income. States with bottle deposits might find this easy to implement.)
  • Come up with value-added products that can be made here from the plastic (eg, grinding it for 3-D printer filament.)
  • Burning the plastic in waste to energy plants (Unfortunately there are few W2E plants in the US but some people are exploring repurposing coal fired plants. You still have to transport the materials to the plants so you need these close to the collection sites or the fuel used to transport it--until we have electric trucks on the road--may offset the environmental benefits of processing them.)
  • Switching to bio-based plastics that truly will decompose in municipal composting operations. (Downside: Many places don't have large-scale composting.)
  • Switching to other packaging. (Unfortunately the options tend to be either heavier—like glass— or even harder to recycle—like tetrapaks.)
  • Put the plastic in segregated landfills so we can mine it later.
Got a better idea? The plastic is already backing up.

Precautionary Principle and Arctic Sea

Humans are well know for Ready-Fire-Aim behavior, blundering forward without considering consequences and impacts. The sustainability-related antidote to that is the Precautionary Principle which states:

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is
  • threatening to human life or health, or
  • serious and effectively irreversible, or
  • inequitable to present or future generations, or
  • imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected.

In a rare move, the international community decided to delay commercial fishing in the Arctic, for at least 16 years, for scientists to understand the ecosystem. Melting sea ice is opening the Arctic to fishing and transportation.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Farm in basement heats office tower

Imagine an office building with a verticle farm in the basement which uses LED lights. The heat off the lights heat the building, saving the building owner three times as much for electricity as he used to get for that space in rent. So the farmer gets the space for free and the occupants get fresh food upstairs. 

This isn’t a dream. It’s in Stockholm.

Monday, December 4, 2017

1/3 customers prefer sustainable brands

According to a study by Unilever in 5 countries, one-third of customers are preferring to buy from companies that they perceive as working on social or environmental causes. This study also tracked buying behavior to make sure it wasn’t just talk. Interestingly this trend was even stronger in emerging economies.

Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer says: “This research confirms that sustainability isn’t a nice-to-have for businesses. In fact, it has become an imperative. To succeed globally, and especially in emerging economies across Asia, Africa and Latin America, brands should go beyond traditional focus areas like product performance and affordability. Instead, they must act quickly to prove their social and environmental credentials and show consumers they can be trusted with the future of the planet and communities, as well as their own bottom lines.”

How Mars and Walmart illustrate the future of sustainability -

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Restaurant designed for maximum benefit

This NYC restaurant is a great example of sustainable entrepreneurship because they’re designed for maximum benefit. They serve a plant-based diet which is good for human health and also the environment. They donate all their profits. And they employ ex-cons in transitional housing which helps them reintegrate into society. So if you’re in New York City, I hope you’ll go eat there.

Friday, December 1, 2017

What Sedona must do to be credible as a sustainable destination

In our recent assessment of Sedona's sustainability practices, we uncovered that there is little public evidence for Sedona's commitment to sustainability, despite the fact that a) sustainability is a foundational principle in the community plan, b) they have done supportive actions and c) are hoping to brand this region as a sustainable destination.

Courtesy Stuart Miles,
For example, if you google "sustainability" and "Sedona, AZ" you get nothing official. I got, in order, a local interior designer, a page I wrote for the Chamber and our website at the Sustainability Alliance. Do a similar search of Santa Fe (a comparable community that we like to benchmark against) and you get several .gov sites. And many of their plans/reg's have sustainability in their title (eg, Santa Fe's Sustainable Land Use Development Code). If you go on City of Sedona's own site and search for sustainability, you get the long-defunct committee. Nothing else. Any commitment to sustainability is invisible.

Low key is good if you have nothing to show, but we're starting to fall behind the rest of the world and that's not good for our reputation. Just a month ago, I saw a visitor was standing by a timeshare dumpster with a paper bag of food scraps, looking bewildered. "Don't they compost here?" she asked. I had to apologize that we did not. I told this story to a friend who lives here part time, Seattle the rest of the year, and she said not having composting, "Makes me crazy." Residents and visitors are starting to wonder if we're all we claim to be. Are we smoke and mirrors or are we truly enlightened, focused on health and well-being, with a reverence for nature and culture?

We need at a minimum to keep up with everyone else. If we become a true leader, the opportunity is to send our millions of visitors home with insights they can implement in their communities.

In my previous consulting practice, I used to tell clients not to go public with their intent to pursue sustainability until they have 4 things in place:
  1. A clear business case for pursuing sustainability; why it was important, why it made smart business sense such that they have enduring top management commitment.
  2. Sustainable targets, interim goals, metrics and a plan in place to get there.
  3. Measurable progress toward those goals (to show it's not just words on paper).
  4. Good performance in some areas as compared to competitors. Saying, "Oh, we finally recycle too," isn't impressive. Saying you're a leader when you're not is green-washing. Saying that our recycling rates put us in the top 10 small US towns (if this were true) would be noteworthy.
So where is Sedona in these 4 steps?

1. Sedona's Business Case

In at least one way, Sedona has addressed the first requirement. Data gathered by the Chamber and the Sedona/Verde Valley Tourism Council indicates that sustainable tourism (aka eco-tourism, responsible tourism, etc.) is a growing expectation. Last year, Sedona had an assessment done against the National Geographic Sustainable Destination certification so it's not just talk. It's also explicitly mentioned (although not well defined) in the Community Plan voted on by the community.

In terms of leadership's commitment, my sense is that the City Manager, one or two of the Council members and the Chamber are on board. If the other council members are willing to keep an open mind, understand that this is about meeting expectations to maintain our tourist-based economy, and be comforted by a process where all projects would be subjected to normal need/cost/benefit analysis, then I think the City can move forward to the next step.

2. Targets, Goals, Metrics and a Plan 

The Community Plan exists, but what is missing is a clear set of targets that define sustainability for our community, along with interim goals and a plan to move in that direction.

Deciding what the targets should be is not that hard if you use a reputable sustainability framework that goes to full sustainability. We use The Natural Step's 4 principles a lot because they're systemic, high-level and based on accepted scientific principles (like the Laws of Thermodynamics). When you overlay those principles to issues and industries in our area, you easily end up with a short list of focus areas and indicators. You have to temporarily suspend concerns about how this might get done or what it would cost with existing technologies. That will work itself out in time. But you have to define what fully sustainable is. Otherwise you're just working on being "less bad," slowing the rate at which we destroy our children's future.

Off the top of my head, here are 4 focus areas (tied to the 4 principles) and some suggested targets.

Stabilize the climate: These targets are often framed as being climate neutral, an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 or 100% renewable energy. Each of those choices presents different opportunities and constraints. My advice would be to choose the first or second of those options because they are most inclusive of sources of climate disrupting gases and allow the greatest flexibility for how to get to the target.

Eliminate toxic emissions to air, water or soil: We have legacy toxins from mining operations. We throw things in the dump or down the drain that end up in nature. Fossil fuels are a significant source of air pollutants.  If we put more toxins into the environment faster than nature can break them down, then they will build up. So we need to move away from doing this.

Targets here might include zero waste (nothing goes to landfill, everything is either reused, recycled or composted/consumed). We should also get our water (drinking and riparian) and air quality to meet safe standards.

Protect nature and the services it provides: Nature provides a host of services for free that either we can't do ourselves or would be extraordinarily expensive: it pollinates our crops, cleans our water and air, builds soil, provides renewable resources like trees, etc. Nature's like a game of pick-up-sticks: you can't be sure which stick will bring the structure down. So we need to keep all the pieces

Targets here might include river and aquifer levels returning to historic levels (or at least arresting the draw-down), biodiversity (no additional endangered species, maintaining or increasing acres of high-quality habitat.) Rural areas outside of Sedona might also want to measure depth of topsoil on agricultural lands.

Provide a high quality of life: Social and economic issues are also an important part of sustainability. These targets are more open to debate because we set expectations, not nature. We might set workforce housing goals (eg, 75% of the people who work here can live here). Zero hunger and homelessness. Predictable and acceptable transportation times between VOC and West Sedona. 100% living wage jobs. Engagement with high-quality life-long learning to adapt to our rapidly changing society.
Note: We recently conducted a survey of our members, people who are knowledgeable about aspects of sustainability, to determine what they thought our priorities and targets should be. I'll share those results in another post. 

Once we have targets, we can set reasonable goals over time to get there and start identifying projects to help us make progress. It's perfectly legitimate to postpone working on one area or another, waiting for technologies to mature. Some of the goals might be tied to outcomes (if we need to have an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050, where should we be by 2020 and 2035?) Other goals might be tied to projects and processes (like access to household hazardous waste drop off events.) But knowing what we need to shoot for is a critical next step.

As Alice in Wonderland famously said, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." We need to have agreement for where we're going, and I hope that is toward a sustainable society where we provide a high quality of life off the 'interest' of nature, no longer drawing down the 'principle.' To strive for anything less is selfishly stealing from our kids.

What are other communities measuring?

Whistler is probably one of the best examples. They're a small tourist based mountain/ski community in British Columbia that used The Natural Step principles early on to inform their sustainability work in the community. Their community indicators are a well-designed website. Take a look at what they measure and report on.

According to VVREO (Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization), Santa Fe is one community we like to benchmark ourselves against. Here’s a 2015 report on their community indicators. It’s a good first generation report but over time, think it could be improved by showing more trend data and also having clear sustainable targets (instead of comparing themselves just to other communities as in the case of water usage.)

What about in Arizona? Here's a one-off sustainability report for Coconino County/Flagstaff. this report talks a lot about sustainability but it's not clear what framework they are using and it represents a snapshot in time. There's no effort that I know of to update it.  

Tucson is large enough to be assessed against the U.N. Sustainability Goals (which we have used for our Dashboard of Community Indicators). This article shows how they rate. We aren’t large enough, probably, to use this method but the indicators are still largely applicable.


Is your city naughty or nice (re renewable energy)

Here’s a list of cities committed to 100% renewable energy and the ones already there. Is your city on this list yet?

100% Commitments in Cities, Counties, & States | Sierra Club -