Amid the Climate Crisis, Glimpses of a Sustainable Future

The world’s largest solar power plant in Kamuthi, Tamil Nadu, India / Financial Express

Amid the constant stream of dire news about the climate, depleted groundwater, increasing air pollution, and the virulent anti-environment policies coming out of Washington, D.C., there are snippets of positive news that offer glimpses of a more sustainable future. Widespread concern about the climate is leading to a new environmental consciousness. National policymakers and companies are taking action because communities and consumers demand progress.

Here are just a few examples of recent positive environmental news:

1) Renewable energy is where the growth is. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states renewable energy sources are expected to account for nearly 26 percent of global electricity production by 2020. According to BP, over the course of 2016, renewable power generation grew 14 percent, accounting for 8 percent of global electricity generation, but 40 percent of the growth in power generation and a majority of the new infrastructure.

Denmark now gets almost two-thirds of its power from renewables, while a number of European countries, like Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK already get around a quarter of their power from wind, solar, and hydropower. After stops and starts, the U.S. has hit a major milestone — 10 percent of its electricity from renewables. And Texas now gets 37 percent of its power from wind and solar.

2) Fossil fuel divestment is nearing a tipping point, at least in the West. Religious groups are now nearly united in divesting from oil, coal, and gas investment. In addition to the Church of England and Islamic Society of North America, more than 40 Catholic organizations with billions of funds recently announced they will divest. TreeHugger argues this is a sign big oil, coal, and gas companies have lost the “moral authority to operate.”

Governments are also making major commitments: Ireland and Norway‘s public funds have divested from fossil fuel production, and New York City recently became the largest city in the U.S. to take the same step. In addition, universities, with hundreds of billions under management, are divesting in record number.

3) Countries are creating massive terrestrial preserves to protect against development and resource extraction. The New York Times reports that philanthropists spent $345 million to purchase one million acres of pristine land in Patagonia, Chile. They then told the Chilean government they would donate the land if the government added more territory and preserved the land as a park. In a huge win for conservation, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet ended up contributing nine million acres and creating five new national parks and expanding three.

National park system in Patagonia, Chile / Conservation Action Trust

Colombia just expanded its largest national park by 1.5 million hectares, so that it now totals 4.3 million hectares, an area the size of Denmark, and added $525 million to its conservation budget.

And, last year, Papua New Guinea created its largest conservation area: the Managalas Conservation Area, which covers some 1,390 square miles in the southeast corner of the country. According to Mongabay, conservation groups and local communities had been working towards this goal for 32 years.

4) And new marine preserves are protecting fish from over-harvesting. Blue Planet II, which some critics argue is the greatest nature film ever made, makes a convincing case that we are over-harvesting many fish species, threatening their long-term sustainability, the biodiversity of our oceans, and the livelihoods of millions who live along the coasts. Fish need protected spaces where they are safe from the fleets of fishing boats in order to regain their numbers. A number of countries recognize this and are thinking long-term:

  • According to Mongabay, Niue, a small island country in the South Pacific, which is home to only 1,600 people, created a protected 49,000-square-mile marine zone that covers 40 percent of the island’s economic zone.
  • Chile announced a 285,700-square-mile marine reserve around Easter Island, which is now facing erosion caused by rising sea levels, and two new preserves — a 54,170-square-mile one off of Diego Ramírez Islands and a 186,870-square-mile preserve around the Juan Fernández Islands in the southern Pacific.
  • Mexico created the 57,900-square-mile Revillagigedo marine park to “protect sharks, rays, whales, turtles and other important marine species.”
  • And, finally, the Seychelles just created two new massive marine preserves, covering 15 percent of the island country’s ocean, in exchange for debt relief, using an innovative new financing model that is expected to improve upon the nature-for-debt swaps of the past.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that almost 15 percent of the Earth’s land and 10 percent of its waters are now protected as national parks or preserves. The amount of water bodies that have been protected has jumped 300 percent in the last decade. The target set by Convention on Biological Diversity is 17 percent of the globe by 2020, and we may reach that yet.

5) China is undertaking an ambitious reforestation campaign. In addition to rolling out a nationwide system for valuing and protecting vital ecosystem services, China is actively trying to restore damaged forests and plant new ones. China Daily and Reuters report China will plant some 6 million hectares of trees in 2018 alone, covering an area equal to Ireland. The goal is to have 23 percent of China covered in trees by 2020 and 26 percent by 2030, up from 21.7 percent today and just 19 percent in 2000. To date, some 33.8 million hectares of forest had been planted over the past five years at a total cost of $82 billion.

Moving forward, though, Chinese foresters must plant more diverse tree species. New, monocultural forests have succeeded in reducing flooding and erosion, but they are also reducing biodiversity.

Reuters writes that the Chinese central government is also promoting an “‘ecological red line’ program which will force provinces and regions to restrict ‘irrational development’ and curb construction near rivers, forests, and national parks.”

6) Veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise. In his latest book Drawdown, Paul Hawken ranks the top 100 solutions for reducing carbon emissions. Number four in terms of possible positive impact is switching to a plant-based diet. Ruminants such as cows and sheep, which literally number in the billions, produce huge amounts of methane — about 1/5 of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Hawken writes: “According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.” Also worth noting: producing meat also requires vast amounts of grain, land, and water.

A recent video from The Economist states that some 5 percent of the world is now vegan or vegetarian. In 2014, just one percent of Americans said they were vegan; today, that number is 6 percent. And 44 percent of Germans now eat a low-meat diet, up from 26 percent in 2014. Just Eats, a food company with 20 million customers worldwide, said demand for vegan and vegetarian foods increased nearly 1,000 percent in 2017 alone.

While these success stories show that even greater change is possible, there are still causes for alarm. The last four years were among the planet’s hottest. After multiple years of flat greenhouse gas emissions, those are rising again. Furthermore, water shortages will increasingly be a cause of worry. According to the World Water Development Report, released by UN Water, some 5 billion people will face water shortages by 2050, because of climate change, pollution, and increased demand. Nature-based solutions — or green infrastructure — is seen as a key solution for improving water quantity and quality, so landscape architects and designers have an important role to play yet.

Design Competition: Make Renewable Energy Beautiful

Regatta H20, 2016 LAGI winner / LAGI

While solar power accounts for only 1.3 percent of global energy production, it grew 50 percent last year, due to a “sun rush” in China and the United States. In 2010, there was just 50 gigawatts (GW) of capacity; now there is 305 GW. Similarly, global wind power generation has also grown incredibly fast over the past decade, reaching 469 GW by the end of 2016 and is now nearly 4 percent of total power.

To further speed the transition to a clean energy economy and society, the Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) believes solar, wind, and other renewable power must be more artfully incorporated into our public realm. They believe “renewable energy can be beautiful” — and, indeed, must be if we want green power to capture the imagination of the world. Every two years, LAGI organizes a global design competition to prototype clean energy-producing public art installations that can increase demand for these technologies in the future.

This year, LAGI hosts their competition in Melbourne, Australia, which is aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2020. Through the competition, LAGI hopes to answer the questions:

“How much of the clean energy infrastructure required to attain this goal will be implemented within urban areas, and what is the impact of these new installations on our constructed and natural environments? How can solar and wind energy be integrated into public spaces in ways that educate, inspire, and are responsive to the history, culture, and nature of place?”

LAGI invites landscape architects, artists, architects, scientists, engineers to form interdisciplinary teams to create proposals for “large-scale and site-specific public art installations that generate clean energy.”

Submit entries by May 6. Winners will be announced in October. The first place winner will receive $16,000 USD and the second place, $5,000 USD.

Check out winners from the 2016 competition in Santa Monica, California, and learn more about their ambitious plan for 2020, which aims to create “real net-zero energy infrastructure in twenty destination art sites (urban or rural), with combined annual capacity of approximately 140,000 MWh, or offsetting the energy needs of 20,000 homes.”

Also, the National Endowment for the Humanities is offering challenge grants, which cover “capital expenditures, such as the design, purchase, construction, restoration
or renovation of facilities and historic landscapes.” Apply by March 15.

Lessons Learned from the First Generation of Net-Zero Communities

BedZED / Wikipedia

The first generation of net-zero communities, which were designed to add no carbon to the atmosphere, are entering their second decade. Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London is about 15 years old now; and the first phase of Dockside Green in Victoria, Canada, is now 10 years old. In a session at the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, Steven Dulmage with Urban Equation and Justin Downey at RNWL outlined lessons learned from these early sustainable communities and how they informed second-generation developments, such as Zibi in Ottawa, Canada, and Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

According to Dulmage, BedZED, which has 82 homes, “didn’t hit net-zero carbon projections.” While the project successfully reduced emissions from transportation — as more residents walk, bike, or take mass transit — the biomass plant built onsite didn’t work out. It ran for a few years and then was discontinued. “It wasn’t economic to run, so they converted to gas. The business case for the biomass plant wasn’t well-thought through.”

Dockside Green in British Columbia, which has 26 buildings that house 2,500 people, was “built up at the front end during the recession, which was very painful for the developers,” explained Downey. While the developers used a phased approach to development, Downey seemed to say the roll-out of those phases was too aggressive. “They didn’t wait for absorption,” meaning they didn’t build to the pace of tenants buying apartments.

Dockside Green / Times Colonist

Also mentioned: One Brighton in the UK, built in 2009, was the first major development built using the One Planet Living framework. While the development reduced carbon emissions by 70 percent in comparison with the average neighborhood development, that’s not 100 percent. Still, homes there sell for a 10 percent premium over comparable real estate because of their inherent sustainability and resale value. There are also other benefits: residents who move there sell their cars as they can walk and bike everywhere. No cars means much less spent on transportation and fewer carbon emissions.

One Brighton / Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

The latest generation of net-zero communities have learned from these first models and may have greater success reaching environmental goals.

Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, which is now under development and will transform 178-acres of old industrial property along the Mononogahela River, could achieve net-zero by using onsite renewable energy for 40 percent of energy needs and a “geothermal field” connected to the river for the rest, explained Downey. “It’s a smart design concept — the ambient geothermal loop and renewable technologies can get us to 100 percent.”

Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green / Business Journals

The Zibi in Ottawa, another community now in development, is using very ambitious sustainability goals to “find synergies among stakeholders,” Dulmage said. While developers are often conservative and “reluctant to invest in sustainability strategies, ” at Zibi, “sustainability is instead used as an alignment tool to reduce risk.” The developers are pursuing a thermal distribution pipeline using waste heat from a nearby Ottawa Hydro facility, with a 50/50 split on the cost and savings for the system between the district energy company at Zibi and the utility. The developers are also using “values-based procurement.”

Zibi, Ottawa / Zibi

As for the future of net-zero communities, Downey sees developers now dictating hard energy performance requirements. For example, in a recent RFP for a new building, Hunter College put in a 100 kwh per square meter performance target.

The conclusion seemed to be getting net-zero, or, really, near net-zero communities, right is still a challenge, but a worthy one given “we can only add 600 more gigatons to the atmosphere before the planet hits dangerous levels of warming. We are going to max out emissions by 2025.”

Sadly, the public may or may not care about these numbers. But if these developments are sold from a human health and happiness perspective, they may be more likely to succeed. The average BedZED resident knows 19 of their neighbors, which is four times the UK average, said Dulmage. On that front alone, this early sustainable development sets a model all its successors should follow.

Using Film to Tell the Story of a Sustainable Future

Solar landscape / Huffington Post

“Principles of sustainability have to be at the center, not at the margins of design,” according filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya, particularly in our era of dramatic population growth and resource scarcity. “Sustainability can no longer be a thing of the privilege, but something that is accessible to all sectors of society and the masses.”

She spoke at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Los Angeles about her films, which explore efforts to bring clean water to all and the global transition to clean energy. 

Her films demonstrate the power of storytelling in inciting positive change. “The stories we tell as a culture have the power to shape the future,” Kantayya said.

She began with a clip from, A Drop of Life, her film about two women, on opposite sides of the world, and their access to water.

Kantayya used the film to underscore the fact that global potable water scarcity is an increasingly dire situation. Today, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean and safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.

“80 percent of illnesses in the developing world are due to water-related illnesses,” she said. “There are just no borders on this crisis.”

Kantayya pointed to the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico where millions of American citizens are still without electricity, healthcare, and clean water a month after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

“This is a failure of a story. That somehow we have failed to frame this story as an American crisis, that this is happening to our fellow citizens,” she said.

In light of the lack of environmental leadership at the federal level, states, cities and communities can act to advance a more sustainable future. 

Her film Catching the Sun is about the global transition to a clean energy economy. She tells stories of people working in the solar industry to illustrate the economic, social, and environmental impact of the movement.

Globally, the transition is moving rapidly ahead. China is the leader in solar with over 43 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to the United States capacity of just over 27 gigawatts. 

“You have seen China, in the last ten years, move from the factory of the world to the clean tech laboratory of the world,” she said, adding that the United States needs to better capitalize on this movement.

“What we need is smart policy, decisive leadership, and visionary landscape architecture that bring sustainable solutions into public spaces and to scale,” Kantayya said.

ASLA Extremely Disappointed in Clean Power Plan Repeal

Coal power plant / Wikipedia

ASLA is extremely disappointed in Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which was projected to cut U.S. carbon emissions 32 percent by 2030. It comes at a time when American communities are bearing the destructive effects of climate change, with ravaging wildfires in the West and disastrous hurricanes in Florida, Texas, other Gulf Coast states, and in the U.S. territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

These catastrophic events are costing our nation billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage, imperiling human health and well-being, and destroying fragile ecosystems.

While Pruitt’s announcement is devastating, it is not surprising. Since taking office in January, this administration has taken several steps to roll back critical environmental and climate change policies. However, ASLA continues to fight for federal, state, and local programs and policies that allow landscape architects to use sustainable design techniques to help communities become healthy, resilient, and climate smart.

Recently, ASLA convened a Blue Ribbon Panel of planning and design experts to develop a set of policy recommendations for mitigating and adapting to climate change through resilient design. The panel will publicly present its findings and policy recommendations in the form of a report in January 2018.

With the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA must soon go through a full notice and comment period on the plan—I hope that all landscape architects and others interested in protecting our communities from the damaging impacts of climate change will join ASLA in weighing in on this critical issue.

This post is by Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

New Guide: Energy Efficiency at Home

By using passive solar heating and an extended roof of photovoltaic panels, these houses produce more energy than they consume. The Solar Settlement in Schlierberg, Freiburg, Germany / Wikipedia

Inefficient home energy use is not only costly, but also contributes to the growth of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary cause of climate change. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the residential sector accounted for 21 percent of total primary energy consumption and about 20 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. in 2013. And according to Architecture 2030, building construction and operations-related energy use accounts for almost 50 percent of total GHG emissions.

Through integrated site design, a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture practices can not only improve the environment, but also result in net-zero or even climate positive homes. If part of a broader integrated site design, sustainable residential landscape architecture can help eliminate the need for fossil fuel-based energy, while creating a healthy residential environment.

ASLA has created a new guide to increasing energy efficiency through sustainable residential landscape architecture, which contains research, projects, and resources. Developed for homeowners and landscape architects and designers alike, the guide is designed to help spread more sustainable and resilient practices.

Homeowners can go net-zero or climate positive by tapping the potential of landscapes. As an example, residential green roof and wall systems, which are often key features of integrated site design projects, can reduce energy use and home heating and cooling costs.

According to The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®), homeowners can use trees and dense shrubs to shade their home and any external HVAC systems or block wind and thereby further reduce energy use.

Homeowners can further leverage clean energy technologies, like solar-powered LED outdoor lighting.

The environmental and economic benefits of energy efficient technologies increase as homes are tied together into multi-family housing complexes with shared infrastructure. Research shows dense development lowers water and energy use, conserves natural habitats, and reduces transportation-related GHG emissions by encouraging walking, cycling, and taking public transportation. Communities like Freiburg, Germany and Malmo, Sweden are examples of residential communities that have taken innovative approaches to design and planning by implementing sustainable energy, water, and waste management systems.

Landscape architects can help homeowners by undertaking a comprehensive energy audit and then identify landscape-based solutions for generating renewable power or reducing energy waste.

State and local governments also work with design professionals to incorporate sustainable residential landscape architecture codes throughout urban, suburban, and rural areas. For example, South Miami just recently mandated that new buildings, and some renovations, must include solar panels.

Source: Drivers of U.S. Household Energy Consumption, 1980-2009, U.S. Energy Information Administration

Explore the guide:

Green Roofs
Green Walls
Tree Placement for Energy Efficiency

Renewable Energy Is Soaring, but Debate Rages on How Far It Can Take Us

Wind farm in Guazhou, China / Carlos Barria, Reuters via National Geographic

Renewable energy is gaining momentum. Within a quarter of a century, one third of global electricity generation will be supplied by wind and solar, according to a report from Bloomberg Renewable Energy Finance (BNEF) released this month.

BNEF, which produces long-term forecasts on the global energy sector, says wind and solar will make up nearly half of installed capacity and 34 percent of electricity generation globally by 2040, a significant increase from today’s 12 percent and 5 percent respectively. The plunging cost of renewable energy is making it cheaper than coal generation in many countries. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will fall by 66 percent and onshore wind, by 47 percent. The report predicts a $7.4 trillion investment, approximately $400 billion per year, in new renewable energy generation globally by 2040.

Meanwhile, the United States just hit a renewable energy milestone. Last week, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced for the first time wind and solar made up over 10 percent of the nation’s electricity generation in the month of March.

This record-breaking share was aided by low demand, common in the spring and fall months, longer days with more sunlight, also typical of spring months, and higher winds in parts of the country like Texas and Oklahoma. Wind and solar will likely hit double-digits again in April before dipping in the summer.

Some experts argue the U.S. could run solely on renewable energy by mid-century – and that’s caused some controversy among the scientific community.

Last week, a group of over 20 researchers published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) assessing the feasibility of that 100 percent target. The assessment is a response to a 2015 paper, also published by PNAS and led by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University, which argued that wind, solar, and hydroelectric power could meet U.S. electricity needs affordably and without risk to grid stability between 2050 and 2055.

Jacobson’s report has been both popular and contentious. It has been supported by many environmental organizations and touted by public figures, like former presidential candidate and U.S senator Bernie Sanders.

Now, researchers led by Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, are taking issue with Jacobson’s paper, arguing this week in PNAS that its analysis “involved errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.” The rebuttal contends that Jacobson’s paper does not make a sufficient argument against previous analysis holding that a diverse set of technologies beyond wind, solar, and hydroelectric power are needed in the transition to a low-carbon future, and that a target of 80 percent is more feasible renewable power generation goal.

Jacobson fired back with a counter response, also published in PNAS, and in an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he called into question his critics’ motives. “They’re either nuclear advocates or carbon sequestration advocates or fossil-fuels advocates,” Jacobson told the online publication. “They don’t like the fact that we’re getting a lot of attention, so they’re trying to diminish our work.”

Those questioning a fully renewable-power U.S. electricity system say some nuclear and carbon capture and storage as well as continued use of some fossil fuel-based sources are also needed, because of the intermittent nature of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, and, as of yet, there is insufficient storage capacity.

The Trump administration is among critics who say a large-scale conversion to renewable energy could be destabilizing to the U.S. electric grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is expected to release a report in the next month reviewing federal regulations to determine whether policies supporting renewable energy, like the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, have made the national electricity grid less reliable. Anticipating the department of energy analysis, two industry organizations released their own report this week, finding that wind and solar have not threatened the reliability of the grid.

It’s no secret President Trump supports the coal industry. Earlier this month he announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, making good on a promise he reiterated throughout his White House bid and isolating the U.S. from the 194 other countries supporting global carbon reduction efforts. Previously, he ordered Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to reduce power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Regardless, the U.S. will come close to achieving those power sector emission reductions even without the federal policy. According to the BNEF report, the U.S. is expected to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. And renewable energy sources are giving coal and fossil fuels a run for its money. The BNEF report also predicts that by 2040 coal consumption will have dropped 51 percent and be replaced by cheaper renewables and natural gas.

New Ruralism: Solutions for Struggling Small Towns

Screamin Ridge farm, Vermont / Screamin Ridge

New Urbanism is a well-known movement that aims to create more walkable communities. Less known is New Ruralism, which is focused on the preservation and enhancement of rural communities beyond the edge of metropolitan regions. Small towns now part of this nascent movement seek to define themselves on their own terms, not just in relation to nearby cities. These towns are more than “just food sheds for metro areas,” explained Peg Hough, Vermont, planner and environmental advocate with, at the American Planning Association (APA) annual conference in New York City. Representatives from three northeastern states — Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire — explained how the principles of New Ruralism can help suffering communities.

In many struggling small northeastern rural towns, the drug epidemic has ravaged communities already weakened by the loss of manufacturing jobs. But it’s clear there are also many using “creative economy” approaches to revitalize themselves. Through her organization, Hough has collected case studies of success stories in Vermont. The communities making themselves more resilient share some important values: “volunteerism, empowerment, ingenuity, creativity, cooperation, entrepreneurism, local ownership, and self-sufficiency,” Hough said, adding that “leadership is key.”

In Vermont, the farm-to-plate economy, a “state-wide but closed-loop” system, now accounts for $8.6 billion, up 24 percent since 2007. There are 7,300 farms, employing 61,000 farm workers, on 1.2 million acres of farmland. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) models have helped farms like Screamin’ Ridge Farm flourish (see image above). Screamin’ Ridge turns left-over imperfect vegetables, which are often discarded as food waste, into soups that are served in schools, hospitals, and other institutions. “They aren’t serving the metro areas.”

Other efforts to boost self-sufficiency: the Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT), a community-based group that trained 50 volunteers from the Thetford community and sent them out to educate other homeowners about weatherization and solar energy options. And on Water Street in the town of Northfield, the community undertook “flood recovery at the neighborhood scale.” A cooperative of 100 homeowners banded together to elevate the most-affected homes and turn the worst-flooded areas into a park.

Thetford Home Energy Action Team (HEAT) project in Vermont / Vital Communities

Lynne Seeley, a community planning consultant, detailed positive bottom-up efforts in mostly-forested, half-uninhabited Maine, the “least dense state east of the Mississippi.” In Grand Lake Stream, a town of just 109 souls, a land trust was formed in 2001 to protect the renowned outdoor recreation areas where people come to fish for salmon. Some 370,000 acres of lakeshore, forest, and wildlife habitat was protected. Seeley said the trust, which has had a tough time raising money, sees their future selling their forest’s carbon credits in cap and trade programs.

Great Lake region. Downeast Lakes Land Trust / Conservation Alliance

In Lubec, a town of 1,350, which is the easternmost community in the U.S., and also the poorest in all of Maine, there’s a new community outreach center where 110 volunteers (nearly 10 percent of the whole town) provide some 1,100 hours of community service a year. An associated food bank serves 20 percent of the community. And in Deer Island, which has 1,975 people, there’s the 12th largest employee-run coop in the country, which now runs three stores, including the local hardware store. CEI helped organize the financing. “This is rugged New Ruralism,” Seeley said.

In New Hampshire, Jo Anne Carr, director of planning and economic development for the town of Jaffrey, highlighted the work of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN), founded in 1984, which has grown from a pilot with 12 low-income women and now has 1,400 members. In Bethelem, WREN got the Omni hotel to create a gallery featuring artists in their network. Downtown, there’s a retail marketplace with some 300 vendors. If a woman wants to become a “WRENegade,” they have to “agree to put themselves out there and become a vendor at a market.” WREN also launched a new maker space in the city of Berlin where women can access “WiFi, latops, CNC machines, laser cutters and printers.”

WREN Makers’ Studio / NHPR

The Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) adapted the age-old concept of a community barn-raiser to create an “energy raiser” in which members volunteer two-to-three times a year at residential solar installations, in turn learning new skills. As volunteers do the installation, they also lower the costs for the homeowner. PAREI has completed 35 energy raisers in 11 towns, including one for the local homeless shelter, which saved the organization $5,100 in annual energy costs.

Lastly, Monadnock at Home, a program for a 10-town region, provides service for 90 elderly households “aging in place,” including helping them avoid frauds and scams, providing transportation to appointments, and organizing social events to help reduce isolation. The organization has pre-screened 100 service providers that can provide small jobs around the house.

Carr reiterated that New Ruralism is really driven by “community leadership, volunteerism, and creative financing.”

D.C. Becoming More Sustainable, But Not Everyone Benefits

Pennsylvania Avenue bike lane / Over the Bars in Wisconsin

It has been four years since Washington, D.C. released its ambitious sustainability plan, which called for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent; increasing the share of trips made via walking, biking or transit to 75 percent; and making 100 percent of the district’s waterways fishable and swimmable — all by 2032. Since then, the district government has accomplished 72 percent of the things it set out to do. And it has made solid progress on the toughest goals. Already, greenhouse gas emissions are down 24 percent, based on 2006 levels, despite four consecutive years of economic and population growth.

At the launch event of Sustainable DC 2.0, district department of the environment and energy director Tommy Wells, outlined the top 10 achievements made by the city since 2013:

#10: Over 100 partners have pledged to help reach the Sustainable DC goals, including all universities in the district and nearly 100 embassies.

#9: The city now have 80 miles of bike lanes and 420 Capitol bike share stations. Some 16.7 percent of the populace now walks or bikes to work. D.C. is tied with Boston for 4th place in this regard, but Wells is confident D.C. will eventually beat Beantown. “I mean, we have much better weather.”

#8: The East Capitol Urban Farm, a three-acre facility that offers access to healthy food and job training. The district has a total of eight urban farms, more than 60 community gardens, and 120-plus school gardens. These efforts and others have helped make 82 percent of the district population food secure.

#7: A new zero waste plan. A comprehensive study now underway will help the city reduces its waste output, which is where the Economist Intelligence Unit said D.C. need to show the greatest progress five years ago. Wells said there are now composting facilities in every ward.

#6: District sustainability awards. Each year, the district government honors those who are leading partners in the effort to achieve the city’s goals. In 2016, American University, Atlas Brew Works, Compost Cab, and others won.

#5: The district now has the most energy star-certified buildings and the most LEED buildings  in the nation on a per capita basis. And for the first time, D.C.’s new comprehensive plan includes a sustainability section.

#4: D.C. is ahead of its goals in planting enough trees to reach a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. The District is now at 38 percent, up 2 percent in the past year when 14,000 trees were planted, which together would cover 800 football fields or two National Malls. Wells gave a shout-out to Casey Trees, ASLA, and American University for helping to accelerate progress.

#3: The Anacostia River is now cleaner than it has been in years, in part due to the 2.7 million square feet of green roofs that help keep stormwater out of the river. Wells was confident the Anacostia can be swimmable and fishable by 2032, “maybe even 2025.”

#2: Sustainable DC ambassadors and volunteers. The district department of energy and the environment has trained over 125 people to go out into their communities and help make the case for sustainability.

#1: D.C. now gets 125,000 megawatts hours from regional wind power sources and 11 megawatts from rooftop solar facilities. 100 percent of D.C. government is now powered by renewable sources. The goal is for 50 percent of the entire district to be powered by wind and solar by 2032; the city’s now at 13.6 percent.

While D.C.’s renewable energy goals take us in the right direction, Hawaii has announced it will aim for 100 percent renewable energy, and Vermont, 75 percent. Portland, Oregon, also recently announced its intention to reach 100 percent renewable. Maybe it’s time for D.C. to up its game a bit?

In a panel after Wells’ announcement, Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert moderated a panel with former D.C. planning director Harriet Tregoning, Nature Conservancy urban conservation director Khalil Kettering, and Black Women Bike founder Veronica O. Davis, exploring how sustainability relates to resilience, inclusiveness, and health and well-being, and where D.C. needs to go next.

Tregoning said a key issue was D.C. and other big cities are no longer “producing middle class jobs; they are just creating jobs at the high-end — knowledge workers — or at the low-end in restaurants or retail.” She has a plan to resolve this: “If 5 percent of D.C. buildings were retrofitted each year, that would create more middle class jobs and grow the housing and construction economy.” Efforts like these are needed more than ever, particularly given the U.S. shed 89,000 retail jobs since the beginning of the year, and cities like D.C. are “automating the low-end jobs that used to be done by people.”

Davis focused on the need more thoughtful inclusiveness efforts, arguing that educational programs aimed at encouraging African Americans in Ward 7 and 8 to use Capitol bike share have been patronizing. “We’ve been doing bike share for years. It’s called: ‘Let me hold your bike while you go into the store.'” She also said training and education on sustainability isn’t needed in many instances, because African American residents in D.C. are really already living in a sustainable manner, walking or biking to work, or using the Metro.

And Kettering zoomed out to look at the systems-scale, arguing that when looking at sustainability, cities need to look at human health and well-being, housing, and transportation together. The relationship between all of the elements that go into sustainability are “constantly evolving. There are layers of issues and benefits” changing in tandem.

D.C. still has many challenges to overcome in its effort to become truly sustainable. According to a recent report, it’s the 17th most segregated city in the country. In 2013, some 18.9 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, putting D.C. among the top six states and territories of the country with the highest concentrations of poverty. And the poverty rate east of the Anacostia got even worse after the recession.

For Tregoning, the problem is that the federal government, even prior to the Trump administration, has told basically told cities “you are on your own,” so there is even “less federal support.” Given the market “doesn’t create fairness and equity,” cities have to be deliberate in creating policies that can. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased investments in affordable housing, but some argue the city’s efforts don’t go far enough.

Ending poverty on the east side of the Anacostia will take a sustainability plan that delivers on new green jobs. Sustainability and equality must be considered two sides of the same coin.

Can the U.S. Achieve Its Climate Goals?

Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research
Electricity transmission / Institute for Energy Research

With the U.S. Supreme Court stay of President Obama’s clean power plan, there are concerns the U.S. will miss its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 26-28 percent by 2025. The U.S. made this commitment in advance of the UN Climate Summit in Paris last year. The commitment was viewed as critical to getting China and the rest of the world on board with significant GHGs cuts. In early February, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to halt the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.)’s new rules that will force states to come up with a plan to reduce GHGs from electric power plants by 2020 until it can hear from the 29 states and multiple corporations that sued to stop the rules. Some 18 states, mostly led by Democrats, have decided to move forward, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides.

In an event organized by New America and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C., John Larsen, director at the Rhodium Group, explained that even if the Supreme Court upholds the EPA’s rules, it’s still not certain as to whether the U.S. can meet its targets. To date, the U.S. is projected to be off its goal by as much as 10-23 percent, depending on whether the clean power plan moves forward, the economy picks up again, Western forests recover, and Congress renews renewable energy credits and approves new energy efficiency incentives.

From 1990, U.S. GHGs were on an upward trajectory, Larsen explained, until 2008, when they began to fall, ultimately 14 percent below Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) projections through 2015. About 40 percent of the decline in GHGs is due to the economic recession; 45 percent is due to a reduction in carbon and energy intensity; and 15 percent is due to improved energy efficiency in buildings.

Today, the U.S. has about a 5.5 billion-ton GHG economy, with the power sector accounting for 1.7 billion tons, transportation 1.6 billion tons, industry 1.25 billion tons, and the rest from methane and buildings. Carbon dioxide emissions account for about 80 percent of total emissions, with methane and hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), which are far more potent than carbon in the destructive warming effects, comprising the rest. Methane emissions may be further reduced by improved regulations on oil and gas production and landfills and reductions in meat and dairy consumption, while HFCs, which are released by refrigerators, may be included in a Montreal Protocol amendment, which could reduce their emissions by 150 million metric tons.

The experts on the panel pointed to other ways the U.S. can cut GHGs. More advanced distributed, renewable energy systems, as well as improved public transit and smart growth could reduce emissions, said Larsen. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law, pointed to the new alliance of 8 states and 5 countries that calls for no gas-powered vehicles by 2050. California, which has the 7th largest economy in the world, has signed on to this. Arroyo also said a number of states and cities are setting ambitious targets for moving to renewable energy and starting their own cap and trade systems.

And Scott Fulton, president of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), added that sustainable materials management, using a life-cycle approach, could cut emissions from product manufacturing. With that approach, “we can realize more benefits from waste, like landfill methane capture.” He also said regardless of governmental action, much of the private sector is moving forward with cutting emissions. This is because, “for investors, carbon intensity is now a big red flag.”

But emissions are only one side of the equation — there is also sequestration, particularly for carbon. And with this, forests and soils are what’s critical. Larsen said this is the tricky part of his national estimates, as the “annual variables are substantial, given drought and wild fires, increased demand for forest-related products, and land use changes, such as sprawl,” which all reduce tree cover. Just last year, California lost 50 percent of its trees due to drought and wild fires.

According to a report by the Society of American Foresters, U.S. forests, which account for 8 percent of the world’s forests, store about 200 million tons of carbon each year — an amount equal to about 10 percent of annual emissions. American forests have essentially remain unchanged in total acreage over the past century. Soils also store millions of tons of carbon, but it’s hard to create a precise figure. (Scientists estimate that soils could potentially store 3.5-11 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide). While the U.S. clearly has a GHG emissions target, there doesn’t seem to be one for sequestration. Why not? Why not invest in a goal of doubling America’s natural sequestration of carbon by 2050? Imagine the positive co-benefits on public health and biodiversity.

For Ellen Williams, director of the advanced research projects agency-energy (ARPA-E), which is investing millions in cutting-edge clean energy technologies, boosting the capacity of soils to store carbon could be a real solution. She believes “innovation can change the boundaries of what is possible.” Some of the teams ARPA-E are financing will use “robotics and big data to see how we can create more sustainable plants that put more carbon in the soil through root growth.” ARPA-E is particularly interested in the “root properties of biofuel plants.”