Sunday, July 19, 2009

Not Just About the Bike

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

Probably the coolest thing I saw in Amsterdam a couple of years ago was a multi-story parking garage at the train station...for bikes. Bikes are everywhere; they have their own protected lanes, and at rush hour, they rule. Car and bus drivers have to deal with it. It's amazing how many people will adopt an earth friendly practice like riding a bike when it is easy.

When I was in Paris last month (and yep, I'm offsetting the flight by supporting a Ugandan fair trade forestry project via ClimatePath), I noticed a different approach to encouraging biking - it's called "Velib". Velib is basically a Zip Car for bikes. You can pick up a bike at one of 1,400 parking kiosks around town, and drop it at another. I love the concept, but Paris streets remain scary and not very friendly to bike riders. Until that changes, I doubt this program will make much of a dent in traffic in the city of lights.

Public infrastructure change is crucial in supporting a lower carbon economy. You want less driving? Stop spending on roads and start subsidizing rail and expanding better coordinated public transportation. (Paris has an amazing, integrated rail and metro system, which costs $1.50 to ride.) More recycling? It's less about the CRV and more about making it easy to drop that bottle or can in a separate bin. (Paris scores low on that one.) In my home town, battery recycling went way up when a local community group organized drop off points and made it painless.

It's exciting to see some of the focus of the stimulus funds directed at smart grids, energy efficiency and other projects...but I wonder if a lack of shovel-ready infrastructure projects that create a permanent greenshift in our communities is a lost opportunity. The lesson is probably to be realistic about what it will really take to transform your community, but to still dream big.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cigarettes for the Planet

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

Global giant Deutsche Bank just launched a real-time 70-foot-tall carbon counter in New York City (right outside Penn Station and Madison Square Garden at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue), which displays a running total of long-lived greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. You can see the online version here.

This sort of advertising is something that humble NGOs only dream of, and has the real potential to raise awareness and reinforce the need to act.

Kevin Parker, who heads up Deutsche's Asset Management group says that:

"Behavioral economists will tell you that the simple act of placing an electricity consumption meter in plain view can substantially cut a home's energy use. The same goes for real-time miles-per-gallon meters in cars, which change the way we drive. These findings tell us something about behavior: When the price of costly activities isn't hidden from us, we're more likely to pursue those activities prudently."

But how quickly does change occur? The sudden rush to raise awareness reminds me of the very public campaign against cigarettes, which started picking up speed 40 years ago when the "scientists don't agree" arguments crumbled and the surgeon general started issuing warnings about tobacco use. The good news on the cigarette front is that there are only 1/2 as many smokers in the US as there were in the 60's. The bad news is that it took 40 years to get here. The worse news is that smoking rates have continued to rise in developing parts of the world, rising by 3.4% per year, according to the WHO. The American Cancer Society projects a drastic increase in cigarette use, based on population and smoking trends in the developing world.

China is now the biggest producer and consumer of cigarettes. Of course, the same is true of CO2. Are we doomed to repeat the cigarette cycle with greenhouse gasses? A gradual adjustment in our domestic "carbon consumption", combined with growth in other parts of the world will be disastrous, leaving the planet with the equivalent of a two-pack-a-day carbon habit.

As a first, step, we need to lead by example. US emissions rates on a per capita basis are so high that it makes it difficult for us to credibly call for action elsewhere. Do your part!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The UN Says Trees Matter....Really?

By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

With all of the billions of dollars being invested in clean technology, carbon reduction and smart grids, it's amazing that forests have been largely overlooked as a source of carbon capture and storage. As a new report by the United Nations Environment Program points out: "forests...have been doing the job in a tried and tested way for millennia." Unfortunately, when forests are cleared via slash and burn, that carbon is unlocked. The UN estimates that 20% of global emissions come from releasing carbon stored in forests, tundra and other ecosystems.

The UNEP report comes at a pretty significant time. There has been a lot of ongoing debate leading up the next round of climate talks in Copenhagen about the role of forests and land use in reducing carbon levels. Establishing baselines, proving that money directly creates a carbon benefit (aka additionality), insuring that they don't burn and modeling ecosystems is pretty complex, and has made forest preservation an outsider when it comes to cap and trade and carbon finance.

I have written about REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) before, and the idea that forests have a carbon value that can be quantified and monetized. An acre of tropical forest can store 100 tons or more of carbon, and UNEP estimates that we are losing at least 20 million acres a year. They also point out that a number of other natural systems, from peatlands to savanna are under similar pressure. The greenhouse gas math is scary. Population growth and the need for income is driving a lot of the destruction, and providing an economic solution, for example by paying indigenous groups to care for forests and set them aside, rather than farm them, is an elegant way to 'unlock the value' of the forest land without unlocking the carbon. ClimatePath has been working with several groups that are using the voluntary carbon markets to do just that.

I have to say, it is a sign of how far decoupled and out of balance our global economy has become that the idea of protecting forests and other natural ecosystems as a way of fighting climate change is open for discussion. While the true 'cost of carbon' is open for debate, can you picture a world without forests? Aside from the carbon, deforestation is often irreversible, and deadly for the plants and animals that call specific forests home. For these reasons alone, let's err on the side of saving them.