Design & Development
June 14, 2007

Is Geen Just the Colour of Money?

Do you have to be rich to be green?
Sustainability, it seems, is associated with affluence – at least if the projects proclaiming their green-ness is any indication. And it isn’t just because the cost of green technology is that much greater. (Indeed, if a project is well planned from the beginning, recent research indicates, there’s no necessary surcharge to be a LEEDer.)
At the Gaining Ground conference in Victoria last week, developer David Butterfield gave a stirring talk on his Loreto Bay project – a vacation spot in Baja California. He was rightfully proud of its commitment to sustainability, and also aware of its paradox: most people will fly there, many to their second homes. By any standard, this is a project available to only a minescule fraction of the world’s population, whose carbon footprint will be comparatively gigantic.
How many times is it pointed out that Al Gore flies around the world to give talks on global warming? Having flown to Australia myself to speak of sustainable urban development, I’m aware of the 8.5 tonnes of carbon allocated to me as just one passenger (and the $154 Australian dollars needed to mitigate it.) But I’m rich enough to afford it. – and aware that the rest of the world would like my options. I know what is more sustainable, and it’s not mitigation and carbon credits. It’s staying at home.
It may be that at this stage, the rich will lead the way by modifying their high-consumption tastes, and thus provide a model for others. But the trend so far seems to be to modify the technology, to spend even more to buy the Prius, than to do with less. The tough choices are thus avoided.
Phillipe Starck, possibly the world’s most high-profile designer of luxury goods and interiors, spoke, well, starkly, about this dilemma the other day in Milan, according to Reuters:

The designer, who decorated the private apartments of former French President Francois Mitterand, said people should only buy essentials.
“The most positive action is to refuse…to buy. But if you need to, the minimum is ethical. To go back to the essence of things and ask myself: do I need this?” he said.

He still designs luxury yachts, even as he speaks to their uselessness. But he is “keen to turn other accepted views of what is luxurious on their head.”

“In the future, there will be two choices: luxury as it exists, mostly linked to the crazy rhythm of fashion, and also new brands with … time value considerations, based on ecology, progress, timelessness.”

Presumably, the value added for these new brands will be expressed in the price. But is this really any closer to the solution?

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Are you better off? Cascadia Scorecard 2007 gives British Columbia its annual check-up.
Sightline’s annual state-of-the-region report finds some big wins in the Pacific Northwest, but shows that we still struggle when it comes to energy efficiency, economic security, and curbing sprawl.

See how BC stacks up in the 2007 Scorecard.

Here are some of the Northwest stories you’ll find in the Scorecard:

  • Northwesterners ease off the gas. We’re using less gasoline per person than we have since the late 1960s, and we’ve cut back almost 10 percent since 1999. Find out about our energy use.
  • We’re adopting smart policies that can improve life here now and in the future. From ambitious climate policies to increased insurance coverage for low-income children, Cascadia is making some good choices. Learn about local solutions.
  • Measuring what matters helps us decide where to put our attention and energy next. The Scorecard shows that the Northwest needs to improve economic security for middle- and low-income families, and that electricity use in our home and businesses remains stuck in high gear. Knowing where we stand today helps us choose the right solutions for tomorrow. More from the Cascadia Scorecard 2007.

Download a free pdf of the report
Tell a friend about the Scorecard

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 My Business in Vancouver column this week:

Leaders need to view sustainability as a policy of national defence
More than ever, politicians are confounded by the Gap. And I’m not talking jeans.
Between the outer edge of what is politically possible and the inner edge of what is necessary, that’s where you find the Expectations Gap.
Leaders, of course, have always been aware of the difference between what people say they want and what they’re prepared to do.  A good illustration was the Vancouver Sun poll on how British Columbians would personally respond to the challenge of climate change. Over three-quarters said they’d be prepared “to make significant changes in lifestyle”; less than half would pay an extra hundred dollars a year in income tax.
Because taxes are the sincerest form of commitment, few politicians want to be that sincere. But not much is left, after the lightbulbs have been changed, that would make a difference. Still, damn it, nature didn’t get the memo. And now that planetary systems are becoming less predictable, the Expectations Gap could narrow too, in unpredictable ways.

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George Monbiot asks the question in The Guardian that we should be asking about Gateway:

… it should be pretty obvious that more roads and more airports will mean that our rising use of transport fuel becomes hardwired – the future health of the economy will depend on it. So the government must have examined this question. If our economic lives depend on continued growth in the consumption of transport fuels, it must first have determined that such growth is possible. Mustn’t it?

Can you guess the answer?  Here.

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Speaking of convenience stores (below), here’s another take from Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain.  (There are some books you know from the first page are going to be good reads.  This is one of them.)
A gas station owner with a convenience store can make more money selling water than gas – at least if the water has sugar in it.
Markup on gas: 7 percent, and falling.
Markup on sunglasses: 100 percent.
Markup on ice: 60 percent
Markup on candy: 43 percent.
Markup on cigarettes: 19 percent.
Best of all is what’s in the ‘vault’ – the coolers, always opposite the door, that bring in a high percentage of the store’s profits.
Impulse buys make up three-quarters of the $132 billion (US) Americans spend in convenience stores.  After driving around, looking to save a few cents, complaining loudly about the price of gas, we happily blow it on sugared water.

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Frankly, I would have guessed this was a hoax … until I read the article.

Step forward, Jeremy Grantham — Cheney’s own investment manager. “What were we thinking?’ Grantham demands in a four-page assault on U.S. energy policy mailed last week to all his clients, including the vice president.

Titled “While America Slept, 1982-2006: A Rant on Oil Dependency, Global Warming, and a Love of Feel-Good Data,” Grantham’s philippic adds up to an extraordinary critique of U.S. energy policy over the past two decades.

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President George Bush in his State of the Union message tonight is expected to call for increased production of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. (We’ll see if that’s accompanied by a call for more fuel-efficient vehicles.) Massive expansion of ethanol plants is already underway. Therefore, it’s important to know if the following is accurate:

From an agricultural vantage point, the automotive demand for fuel is insatiable. The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.

The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its 2 billion poorest people who are simply trying to survive is emerging as an epic issue. Soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in scores of lower-income countries that rely on grain imports, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mexico. The resulting political instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress, directly affecting all countries. It is not only food prices that are at stake, but trends in the Nikkei Index and the Dow Jones Industrials as well.

This comes from the Earth Policy Institute. I haven’t seen these figures elsewhere, so I’m cautious. But even if exaggerated, the moral issue is probably not: If filling up an SUV means people suffer elsewhere, possibly even at home because of higher prices for food … well, what would Jesus do?

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I subscribe to the New York Times Select – the stuff you have to pay for to see on the web. It’s one strategy the dead-tree media are using to remain viable. In this case, it’s worth it.
Here’s a reason: the bloggers who don’t even appear in print. Lisa Margonelli writes one called “Pipeline.”
You can read the whole piece here if you subscribe, but here’s a sample:

An overwhelming number of Americans believe that our oil problems can be solved by better auto technology ….
What we would rather not do is use less gas. Over the past five years, as gas prices have doubled, fuel consumption has continued climbing upward…. We are a country with 140 million pedals to the metal. American drivers buy one of every nine barrels of crude oil pumped from the ground, so we have more power and influence over world prices than any other buyers. Our behavior exacerbates small supply shortages, sending prices even higher. The International Energy Agency now considers drivers’ “insensitivity” to price as a potential threat to the stability of the world oil market…
Why? In 1977 the average family traveled 12, 036 miles a year, but by 2001, we were driving 21,171 miles to and from work, soccer practice and the mall. People bought bigger cars to make the longer drives more bearable, and now they’re stuck with both the cars and the commutes.

[And, I’d say, with the urban environments created by the car: places in which there are no alternatives, and no alternatives wanted.]

Generations of Americans have come to expect a constant flow of cheap gasoline as a right — and they attribute high prices to oil company shenanigans. Eric Smith, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, found that that 85 percent of Californians believe that high gas prices are the result of oil company manipulation, not market pressures. And if there’s no shortage, why conserve?
To really address our overconsumption of oil, we need to fix the drivers along with the cars. And that will require big new approaches. For years, environmentalists have begged for higher gas taxes as a way to discourage people from wasting gas. But we have demonstrated that we can’t or won’t respond rationally to high prices, so taxes will not push conservation. We need to rethink our supply-based energy policy, and ready to start making changes both big and small in the way we consume oil.

That’s a formula for catastrophe – the mechanism a deluded population requires before accepting change. Not exactly a great political platform or policy recommendation. Perhaps it explains why most politicians are not engaging the big issues, particularly climate change, or making the connections to our way of life.

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Don Potts has a quick reponse in the Sun today to Marc Jaccard’s column in the Saturday issue.
(Potts is executive director of the Joint Industry Electricity Steering Committee, which represents the major industrial users of purchased electric power in B.C. Marc Jaccard is an SFU professor in resources and author of “Sustainable Fossil Fuels.” I reference his criticism of the province’s approval of coal-fired power plants without carbon capture in this post below.)
Says Potts:

Others have voiced opposition to coal burning because of increased greenhouse-gas emissions. While an important issue worldwide, the issue needs to be dealt with on a comprehensive national/international basis and not unilaterally applied to a single technology after proponents have developed plans in good faith that comply with the terms of BC Hydro’s call for tender and the newly established provincial emission standards. To reject these facilities now … sends a costly message to those in the private sector who may want to help supply the growing need for electric power in B.C.

Translation: Don’t punish us because BC Hydro doesn’t give a damn about climate change. If you do, you won’t get more carbon-spewing plants in the future.
I am increasingly astonished at those who think we can make decisions today without having to bear the consequences of our actions. Or assume that there will not be economic implications in the future when we decide to ignore carbon pricing today.
So what should be doing? Not surprisingly, California is preparing itself.

California utilities would be prohibited from buying electricity from most coal-burning power plants in neighboring states under far-reaching regulations proposed by state energy regulators Wednesday.
The rules … would limit the amount of carbon dioxide new power plants in the state could emit. … Under the rules, the state’s investor-owned utilities would not be allowed to buy power from any source that spews more carbon dioxide than does a modern natural gas power plant. Specifically, the source could not emit more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt hour of electricity produced. That’s enough energy to light 750 homes for one hour. (Full story in the San Francisco Chronicle here.)

Is that what B.C. should tell investors: You can build your plants – but only if they’re less carbon-polluting than a natural-gas plant.
Says Marc Jaccard:

It makes sense. The regulations do not ban coal. They set a limit on CO2/Kwh to the level of a clean natural gas plant. This will force coal plant developers to move more quickly to coal plants with carbon capture and storage – which will still be cheaper than natural gas plants, nuclear and most renewables. California is once again setting the trend.

The Daily Score at Sightline praises the California initiative here, but cautions that it would be easy for power suppliers to, say, buy hydro power from the Northwest – and then let us buy the coal-originated power. In other words, we could launder the polluting power – unless we had the same requirements as California.
Jaccard doesn’t share that fear:

Forgot the bit about coal-power laundering. There are reporting procedures about electricity transfers that make it fairly easy to see if BC Hydro or anyone else is laundering dirty electricity to California. If there were nothing but small players, that would be one thing. But the transmission lines are controlled by big entities. Vigilence will be required, but since most jurisdictions are likely to follow California in emission regulations, it should be easy to prevent this kind of thing.

He, too, assumes British Columbia will follow California. But not presumably if Mr. Potts can rely on Premier Campbell, the provincial government and B.C. Hydro to ignore climate change.
(Yesterday I asked a selection of people I met at holiday parties, some of whom are Liberal supporters: “True or False – Gordon Campbell has had nothing to say about climate change.” Without exception: True.)

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Today on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog:

The real danger is a newly emboldened Islamist region with a chokehold on the world’s oil….  We can pretend we can affect that outcome, but I fear we cannot. We can only watch and redouble our efforts to get energy from sources other than from a region on the verge of full-scale conflict. (Emphasis mine.)

B.C.’s strategy: redouble our efforts to build more roads, bridges and an urban form dependent on an oil-based transportation system.  And then price the system as though it were free. 

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