The Sustainability Buzz

Don’t Wait for Trickle-Down Sustainability: How Local Efforts Move the Needle

Local Sustainability

To misquote Tip O’Neill, all sustainability is local.

On October 15, 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fifth Assessment Report on the state of the global climate.  The full text is readable here.  This was by far the most comprehensive and scientifically detailed of all its work done to date. In it, Working Group II identified with a high level of confidence eight distinct risks to the world and its inhabitant.  They ranged from “death, injury and ill-health . . . in low-lying coastal zones . . . due to storm surges, coastal flooding and sea level rise” to “mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations.” It was, without a doubt, a dire assessment of the planet’s future without significant adjustment of human practices. What was the response of the U.S. Congress? Nothing. They were on election break.

On November 12, 2014, the U.S. and China announced an agreement on a plan to combat climate change, the first such agreement to which China has been willing to be party. Much of the objection to the U.S. signing on to prior world-wide agreements has been that unless and until China does something significant, our involvement will not make a difference. Now China’s on-board, at least in a first step. What were the reactions of the incoming Republican leaders of Congress? They derided the terms of the agreement and scoffed at the Chinese willingness to follow through on the commitments outlined.

Doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of bold sustainability leadership needed to solve the problems we face.  Luckily for us, the U.S. Congress is becoming an increasingly irrelevant player in the drive for sustainability.

The real action on sustainability challenges is happening at the state and local levels with an increasing sense of urgency.  Couple that with the continuing rise in corporate understanding of the risks of inaction and it’s clear that we, the people, are not waiting for the Federal government to act.  Here are just a few recent examples.

The Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) recently reported on some of the results of their commitment to responsible management of environmental resources.   According to district superintendent Joseph J. Roy, “the district’s focus on energy efficiency has saved approximately $5.7 million for taxpayers over the last five years.” Five schools now have installed solar panels, accounting for 9 percent of the district’s energy consumption.  Because these panels generate more electricity than their schools can consume, the resulting sale of the excess energy has provided $147,234 in savings since 2010.

Perhaps most importantly for the future, the BASD has undertaken a project to integrate sustainability principles into all levels of its curriculum, fostering appreciation for the environment within the classroom. Students not only learn the principles of sustainability but they are educated within buildings that demonstrate the effectiveness of those practices. They are seeing firsthand how their school district “walks the walk”.

In October, California became the first state to outlaw the use of plastic bags.  Beginning July 1, 2015, customers of large grocery store and drug store chains will be required to either use their own reusable bags or purchase ones offered by the store at a cost of at least 10 cents per bag.  On July 1, 2016, that requirement will be extended to convenience stores and liquor stores.  It’s the first statewide action to combat the more than 13 million plastic bags used in the state every year.

California’s action follows the adoption of similar measures by individual cities within California as well as Seattle, Chicago, Portland, OR, and Austin, TX.

The City of Philadelphia has published a Commercial Recycling Toolkit, with assistance from iSpring, in order to motivate more extensive recycling by Philly businesses.  The Toolkit helps Philly’s more than 50,000 businesses to more efficiently comply with Philadelphia’s recycling regulations, often resulting in significant cost savings for the company and definitely resulting in cost savings for the city.  Coupled with new legislation that requires all buildings in Philadelphia that are 50,000 square feet or larger to benchmark energy and water consumption data annually, these initiatives undergird Philly’s efforts to become “the greenest city in America”.

Last Thursday, David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country, committed his company to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and by 90% by 2050.  This is no small challenge. NRG is the fourth largest carbon polluter in the country, largely based on the number of its electricity-generating plants that are coal-fired.  NRG is seeking to increase its investment in alternative energy, particularly solar in addition to making their current plants cleaner and more efficient. To that end, they are investing in a commercial-scale post-combustion carbon capture project.

However, Mr. Crane framed it, ultimately, as a necessity for company survival.  “If divestment from fossil fuel companies becomes the issue that preoccupies college campuses around America for the next decade,” Mr. Crane said, “I don’t relish the idea that year after year we’re going to be graduating a couple million kids from college, who are going to be American consumers for the next 60 or 70 years, that come out of college with a distaste or disdain for companies like mine.”

What’s the moral to the story? No one needs to be frozen into inaction by the total lack of responsiveness and responsibility of the U.S. Congress. Every project helps, whether at the municipal, state, educational or corporate level.  In fact, it probably matters more because it will directly improve the lives of your family and community.  No need to wait for trickle-down sustainability.

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