Oct 20, 2013

What you didn’t know about US Senator Ted Cruz…

US Republican Ted Cruz, Junior Senator from Texas, was the public figure of the Tea Party in the shutdown fight that closed the US government for over a half a month.  In the course of his faux-filibuster, he read among other things Dr.Seuss “Green Eggs and Ham”... to publicise his views against Obamacare.  

Well, not surprising for a Tea Party republican, he’s also against any form of gun control.

But what is less well known, according to Newsweek,  are his views on sustainability, notably on one of the founding documents of the modern sustainability movement, “Agenda 21” that came out of the UN Rio conference of 1992.  For Cruz, it’s nothing short of a global conspiracy:

“Cruz believes Agenda 21, a non-binding 1992 United Nations document on sustainable development endorsed by that well-known radical, President George H.W. Bush, is a sinister "globalist plan that tries to subvert the U.S. Constitution and the liberties we all cherish as Americans." He accuses U.N. plotters of aiming to abolish "golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads" and fingers George Soros, a billionaire funder of liberal causes, as the puppet-master behind the plan.”

Now we know how batty the Tea Party really is…


Jul 19, 2012

How governments stop sustainable development

On July 10 earlier this month, an unprecedented march took place on Parliament Hill.  Between 500 and 1000 scientists protested in white lab coats against cuts to a number of scientific programs in the federal government.  The protest was presented as a funeral march dubbed “Death of evidence”.  It received wide media coverage locally and nationally.

It used to be generally accepted that governments need scientific evidence to support policy decisions.  They need to know how much coal, uranium or oil we have in the ground to plan future energy policies.  They need to monitor the health of our rivers and lakes to see what long-term impacts certain man-made stressors will have on their viability.  And they need to keep track of how our atmosphere is changing to make sure that the health of Canadians is protected.  A good example of that was when it was first noted that the ozone layer was becoming dangerously thin, allowing more harmful cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation to penetrate our atmosphere.  This led to the 1989 Montreal Protocol which banned the use of chemicals such as chlorinated fluorocarbons used in refrigerators that attack the ozone layer.  Another example was the successful identification of the acid rain threat, largely produced from coal burning power plants in Canada and the US, which was killing life in our lakes.  This led to a successful air quality agreement between Canada and the US in 1991 to reduce sulfur emissions in the atmosphere.  This resulted in a measurable reduction in the acidification levels of our lakes.  These policy actions would clearly not have happened without supporting scientific evidence.

The recent cuts by the federal government to a number of research centers and programs that collect baseline data on the environment has been criticized nationally and internationally. These actions are cutting off vital scientific information that provide the critical data on which policy decisions can be made such as acid rain or ozone depletion.  It so happens that many of these cuts are focused around the environment.  The result is to choke off ongoing reliable information related to climate change, atmospheric pollution and water ecosystems. In other words, the current federal government is eliminating scientific evidence that would help us determine how we are harming the environment and accelerating global warming, so we don’t have to worry about it.  To borrow from Al Gore, they are destroying the evidence that would point to the problem or to the “inconvenient truth”.  That’s definitely one way of slowing down or stopping the transition to a sustainable society.  And that’s what inspired the “Death of Evidence” protest .

Two other recent examples come from the increasingly polarized US political arena.  A recent US Geological Survey study showed that the eastern US ocean coast is more vulnerable to rising ocean levels from climate change than other areas.  This caused obvious concern in businesses located on the seashore in North Carolina.  But their concern was not from the potential risk from rising ocean levels to their businesses.  It was prompted by the additional costs that would inevitably arise from the anticipated new state government zoning regulations to restrict growth of their coastal businesses.  This is based of course on the false belief that climate change is hogwash and increased ocean level due to climate change is total fiction.  So they successfully lobbied the state legislature to prohibit any future ocean level projection that would include climate change as an explaining factor.  Henceforth, all future ocean-level studies have to be based on purely historical data.  Outcry over the proposed legislation resulted in minor changes.  The new version now places a 4-year moratorium before planners can draw on the most up-to-date climate science. But that is a second way of denying “inconvenient truths” – you simply legislate against it.

Another example is a piece of legislation passed by the Alabama Legislature that forbids any policy regulation or funding that would support the UN agenda 21 passed in 1992 at the first Rio conference.  The concern here is that Agenda 21 acknowledges that commercial use of private property can sometime result in harm to the environment, and that these harmful uses should be controlled.  And our good Republican friends believe that private property rights are absolutely sacred and cannot be influenced without “due process”.  The actual law specifies  that
The State of Alabama […] may not adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to "Agenda 21," adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.” 

With regards UN accredited environmental NGOs and inter-governmental organizations (e.g. ICLEI) that lobby or try to influence private property usage, the state “may not enter into any agreement, expend any sum of money, or receive funds contracting services, or giving financial aid to or from those non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations as defined in Agenda 21.”

What Alabama says is that initiatives attempting to restrict the use of private property especially if they originate from a non-elected body such as the UN are in fact anti-constitutional and should be banned.  Here is a third way of stopping change – you legislate against some of the basic principles that support a new economic order, e.g. that land should be used sustainably, essential to the transition to a sustainable society.

As we said in our original “Making it happen” report, government leadership is one of the essential components to making the transition to a sustainable society.  What we are seeing in these three recent and disturbing examples is active government action to impede this transition.  

Nov 21, 2011

Solar Energy Evolution: Death and Transfiguration

The publication last week of the IPPC’s “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Adaptation” brings home yet more evidence of the profound physical changes to our planet caused by man-made climate change: increase in the frequency of hot days, longer and more intense droughts, more heavy precipitation and increased wind speeds of tropical storms. The idea of the report is to get policymakers on the climate change adaptation page.

And in terms of actual GHG emissions, the news is no better. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new high in 2010 since pre-industrial time and the rate of increase has accelerated, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, released today. It focussed special attention on rising nitrous oxide concentrations.

The International Energy Agency also published last week in World Energy Report 2011 a stark warning that unless we invest in cleaner energy technology, temperature rise from climate change could be economically disastrous. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

This raises the obvious question about mitigation: Where do we stand today in deploying non-GHG-making energy sources? How is solar energy faring?

A number of recent articles point to the fact that solar energy is going through a death and transfiguration phase, to borrow an image from Richard Strauss.

Richard Blackwell from the Globe and Mail wrote a rather dismal assessment of solar collector manufacturing companies in Ontario where policy uncertainties at the federal and provincial levels lead inevitably to customer nervousness. He shows that over the last year, a number of Ontario-based companies like Arise Technologies, or ATS Automation Tooling Systems are facing bankruptcy or closing plants. He blames the industry downturn on falling prices, over-capacity and intense competition. He also claims that there is a weak market, but others disagree.

Nobel economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman takes on a more global perspective and is firmly convinced that solar is much more promising than appears to be the case. For him, companies like Solyndra went under because they could not keep up with the competition and the dramatic drop in the global price of solar panels. The cost of electricity produced by photovoltaic cells has gone down by 7% percent a year in real terms. And “ if this downward trend continues — and if anything it seems to be accelerating — we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.”

The source of this competition is China. According to Keith Bradsher of the New York Times, the country accounts for three fifths the world’s solar panel production. 95% of that is exported, much of it to the United States. Given China’s government-controlled economy, US solar panel manufacturers see their Chinese competitors as benefiting unfairly from government subsidies. And so it’s not surprising that the US Department of Commerce at the request of these manufacturers opened an investigation into “dumping” charges. The Chinese are accused of selling solar panels in the United States at prices lower than the cost of making and distributing them.

The Chinese cleantech industry responded to these charges vigorously which was to be expected. But surprisingly, a new American trade group representing buyers and installers of solar energy systems argued that “any new Commerce Department restriction on Chinese solar panels would slow the adoption of clean energy technology in the United States and could cost thousands of American jobs. Environmentalists also tend to oppose policies that might slow the adoption of solar energy.”

So here it is again, the age-old process of the introduction of a new technology and the death and transfiguration of a global industry.

Mar 30, 2011

Study finds high level interest in an Eastern Ontario Sustainability Cluster

As part of our initial explorations of Phase II for our work, we have just completed with Ralph Torrie and Fiona Wright an initial study on the feasibility of creating or encouraging a sustainability cluster in Eastern Ontario.

Here are some of our conclusions:

A cluster is a reasonably understood geographic model for economic development, and Silicon Valley in California is a classic example. Other examples would be the Research Triangle in North Carolina, or Kanata in Ottawa West in IT and telecommunications.

Selecting Eastern Ontario as a geographic area of concentration for sustainability makes sense from a number of perspectives, including demographics, natural and ecological resources, presence of educational and research institutions, and, as the survey in this report shows, a large number of interested individuals and organizations working towards the goal of sustainable economic renewal.

An electronic survey was sent to 176 stakeholders, of which 27% responded. By most standards, this is considered to be a very high response rate, and is indicative of the high level of interest by these stakeholders in the proposed initiative. Respondents came from all over the region, including some outside Eastern Ontario, and included governments, financial institutions, businesses and corporations, and associations, networks, and NGOs. The survey was complemented with in-depth interviews with a selected sample of opinion leaders.

There is a high interest in sustainability in the region, judging by the significantly high level of response, the type of sustainability projects identified, and the response to various questions in the survey and the interviews.

There is a varying degree of awareness of market-based instruments (“MBI”s) to promote sustainability. This is based on the degree of recognition of a list of more than 50 MBIs presented in the survey, where fees and pricing strategies appear more prevalent than tax-related measured and outright incentives.

All respondents in the survey and the interviews were in favour of the idea of a cluster supported or facilitated by a central hub.

They also strongly suggest that the cluster address other sustainability challenges including water, water quality, waste generation and recycling, toxics and industrial hazardous waste.

Services or support that a hub could provide include:

  • Access to financing and government programs
  • Quantitative analysis of projects and provision of common information
  • Finding partners for DSM projects
  • Generation of economic and performance indicators, including job creation
  • Better access and communication with other players in the region.

In short, there is a wealth of interest and pent-up demand to start building a more systematic network or sustainability cluster in the region.

More to follow…

Feb 22, 2011

Creating an innvovation cluster in sustainability

Can we create a regional innovation cluster to promote sustainability and job creation? To explore this question, we launched a small survey among Eastern Ontario stakeholders to determine their interest in sustainability and a possible Eastern Ontario initiative to promote regional sustainability. Here is the invitation letter to participate in the survey. If you have an interest in the region, feel free to fill it our by clicking the link below:

The Eastern Ontario Sustainability Strategy Project (EOSS)


This is an invitation to participate in the initial steps of EOSS, the Eastern Ontario Sustainable Strategy, an initiative to drive job creation and sustainable economic development.

You and your organization have been identified as a stakeholder in the economic and sustainable development of the region

We are conducting a survey to assess the feasibility of promoting job creation and economic development in Eastern Ontario by creating a sustainable or green region. EOSS is supported by a number of organizations in the region, including the University of Ottawa, Queen’s University, community colleges, industry and non-governmental associations.

This informal survey will help assess the current efforts in your community and region in projects promoting a cleaner environment and a sustainable community. We would also like to find out what services and support a hub or facilitative group should offer to increase this level of activity.

We would very much appreciate if you could spend a few minutes and fill out the survey in the link below.

Click here to Start Survey

Feel free to send out the survey to other people in your network.

The EOSS project team

André Potworowski andre@tma.cc

Ralph Torrie rtorrie@torriesmith.com

Jan 15, 2011

The next phase of our work - Can you help?

The start of a new year is an appropriate time to make resolutions. It’s also a good time to define the next phase of our project. We talked to a lot of people and explored many options. We looked at the possibility of going into greater depths in analyzing more barriers and obstacles. We also thought of broadening our scope to examine other industrial and economic sectors.

But one idea did emerge as being particularly attractive and relevant for today’s society. Why don't we just take a specific geographical area, bring together all the local players, and look at all the levers to remove obstacles and accelerate change and the adoption of sustainable measures? Why not nurture and promote a sustainability cluster?

In other words, why not just "make it happen"?

Going back to the definition of Michael Porter from the Harvard Business School, an innovation cluster is a geographically proximate group of interconnected organizations such as universities, colleges, manufacturing and supplier companies, service organizations, financing and regulatory bodies linked by commonalities and complementarities.

Clusters have a common central purpose and generally excel in a particular sector of economic activity. Classical examples would be Silicon Valley in the area of semiconductors, Kanata (Ottawa West) in telecommunications and IT, or the lesser known town of Montebelluna in Northern Italy which for many years was the world capital for ski boots manufacturing, with companies like Nordica, Tyrol, Rossignol and Lange. Then there are the older clusters like the wine making regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy that have been around for centuries.

But here, we're not talking about a cluster that exports goods and services (although that may eventually happen) but a region which is specifically designated to promote the accelerated deployment of sustainability measures.

There is growing recognition that you can create more jobs for the buck when you invest in such measures as energy efficiency, energy conservation, or even locally-based renewable energy. The literature is small but solid and growing.

Being Green in short makes high economic sense. And it can be used to promote economic development and economic renewal, especially in a region where manufacturing and traditional industries have virtually disappeared.

At the Telfer school, we are exploring a specific initiative like that. We also know that any kind of cluster requires the building of a social community. That’s often called a cluster facilitator or catalyst. And we need the tools to do that, and we need your help to find them.

A special request

As part of our new project on regional sustainability at the Telfer School, we are looking for novel applications of social media to help facilitate and catalyze our cluster community. We need an integrative social media platform that can provide the critical linkages for an innovation clusters. We are looking for successful examples where these social networks have been used to build communities.

At the end of the day, we want to create a Clean Tech or sustainability cluster. We want to bring together communities, local government, as well as suppliers, manufacturers, technical experts and skilled trades, supported by a network of financial and technical advice and expertise. We want to share case studies, best practices, and provide some basic feedback, performance metrics, and scenarios and roadmaps.

We are looking for an integrative platform that would use the latest social network tools (Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and link to Blogs and URL sites) to accelerate the trust building, communication and sharing among the stakeholders in the cluster.

Specifically, we're looking for successful examples where a social network integration platform has been used to help grow an innovation cluster, build a community, and link the various players and stakeholders. It doesn’t have to be related to sustainability or clean-tech, but we would like to see some truly effective (viral?) examples.

Can you help us by pointing us to such sites?

Jul 28, 2010

Choosing the right economic indicator – Gross National Happiness vs. Gross Domestic Product index

Since the days of the Club of Rome and Canada's Conserver Society, the underlying debate about economic growth vs. resources depletion and environmental limits has continued relentlessly. Politicians and governments are focused on GDP growth. Environmentalists are looking for alternatives.

But Oliver Moore in a recent Globe and Mail article reminds us that there is at least one other way of measuring the success of a society: Gross National Happiness. He cites the example of Bhutan, a small idyllic mountainous country snuggled between Bangladesh and China. Faced with increasingly rapid change from the pressure of globalization, which threatened its traditional way of life unspoiled by colonialism, it was looking for an alternative. The country came up with a 9 x 72 matrix set of indicators that would assess the population’s mood.

The resulting Gross National Happiness or GNH index is based on residents’ assessment of nine domains including psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, culture, health, education, environmental diversity, living standard and governance. Each of these in turn is broken down into indicators or variables. For example, for living standard, there are eight indicators, i.e. household income, income sufficiency to meet everyday needs, food insecurity, house ownership, room ratio, purchase of second hand clothes, difficulty in contributing to community festivals, and postponement of urgent repairs and maintenance of house. In total, for the nine domains, there are 72 indicators or variables, each of which has an associated survey question and a resulting index. See the Centre for Bhutan Studies web site for details.

This GNH process has moved beyond a method of assessing the population.

The country's leaders now use it as a screening tool to assess whether decisions fit its criteria. For example, a recent proposal to join the WTO initially appeared attractive. But when it was screened against the GNH criteria, it was determined that the WTO policy would not further the GNH objectives. And so the proposal was rejected. A good analysis of the underlying thought process is given by Mark Mancall of Stanford University in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Bhutan Studies:

The pursuit of GNH depends upon the affirmation and reinforcement of Bhutan’s ability to exercise self determination in the positing of long-range objectives, short and intermediate-range policy decisions, and the development of the institutions and values in which those long-range objectives will be embedded and the procedures through which they will be realized. WTO membership weakens and diminishes national self -determination institutionally, procedurally, and culturally.

A key Canadian expert who helped Bhutan in adopting GNH is Ron Colman of Nova Scotia, founder of GPI Atlantic. He started by promoting the notion of a Genuine Progress Index (GPI) for Atlantic Canada. He sees progress as being more closely related to quality of life than depletion of resources such as fisheries or forestry.

More recently, the movement spread to the United States through GNH USA, which held a very successful conference last June in Middlebury, Vermont. Countries that expressed interest in GNH include Brazil, which had its own international conference on GNH last year and South Africa.

France is another country interested in alternative measures of progress. It recently published a report on alternatives to GDP as a measure of success through its Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. The French translate Gross National Happiness as…”Joie de vivre”!

Clearly, there is a long way to go before elections are won and lost on GNH progress, but the conceptual foundations are gradually being laid. And in Canada we are off to a good start now that Montreal has been ranked as the second happiest city in the world.

Jul 27, 2010

To drill or not to drill, that is the question

We continue to examine barriers to moving toward a sustainable society

The gulf of Mexico BP catastrophe has brought into crystal-clear focus our long-standing dilemma over oil dependency. Should we continue our dependency on oil? Should we risk more Gulf-like disasters, including associated GHG missions from the combustion of fuel? Or NOT? To drill or not to drill, that is the question.

A recent New York Times article reports on conversations with some people in the small community of Dulac, Lousiana, and for them, the choices are very real. The issue has been brought to their front stage with dramatic clarity.

Most people in Dulac are reeling as they watch the local seafood industry collapsing under the body blow of the BP spill.

But there is another crisis caused by President Obama’s moratorium on oil drilling, which the Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jinda, calls "a second man-made disaster". The oil industry is responsible for huge majority of jobs in the area, and Louisiana lawmakers fear the drilling moratorium, could put more than “100,000 people out of work, shutter businesses and destroy livelihoods”.

Federal U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, known to invest in the oil and gas business, overturned the presidential moratorium. Last week, the US Justice Department issued a new moratorium that it hopes will pass muster with the courts.

And the fight continues. But the Dulac community members are beginning to ponder the merits of alternative energy. Those are difficult choices.

The ‘take home’ sustainability challenge can be phrased as follows:

How might we have a sustainable community (with no oil dependency) that can generate good jobs and economic prosperity?

May 29, 2010

The challenge of maintaining public commitment to sustainability

One of the biggest barriers to the transition to a sustainable society is public attitude. In essence, sustainability involves transforming our economy from one that consumes excessive energy and resources. This requires a focused dedication to long-term objectives over a time period spanning 50 to 100 years. Although there are many other metrics to define sustainability, global warming has been the one single indicator on which we’ve focused to-date. Maintaining public support to address this challenge is critical.

What is distressing is a recent article in the New York Times about the drop in support for action against man-made climate change, especially in Britain - the forefront of climate change initiatives in OECD countries.

The NYT article quotes a BBC poll that finds that “only 26 percent of Britons believed that ‘climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,’ down from 41 percent in November 2009”. UK politicians, including new Prime Minister David Cameron, who have previously led the charge on climate change action are now soft-pedaling the issue. Similar trends though not as strong are appearing elsewhere in Europe.

Causes for this cooling of attitudes have been attributed to the growing visibility of climate change skeptics. Encouraged by the media, they have been making hay with last year’s email scandals at East Anglia University. Other contributing factors were some minor errors in IPCC reports, e.g. exaggerated rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers. And the coldest European January in recent years didn’t help either. The scientific community is beginning to fight back with letters and editorials in prestigious journals like Nature and Science.

But there is a deeper question. Unlike the January 2010 Haiti earthquake which galvanized world attention for almost half a year, climate change is a slowly progressing but far more pervasive and dangerous natural phenomenon. It has to be addressed through mitigation or adaptation strategies and the move to a sustainable society. But making the transition to a sustainable society requires consistent focus. This transition will require some short term sacrifices and tradeoffs. More impoertantly, it will also require a steadfast commitment spanning several elections at all levels of governments.

What’s the take home message? We have a simple challenge: how might we present sustainability as a long term critical societal goal, in a sufficiently attractive and compelling vision, to maintain the commitment over the next several decades.

Any suggestions?

Mar 19, 2010

New case study on the transformation of a major regulatory system – The Model National Building Code

This is a special post to announce the publication of a case study examining the National Building Code of Canada. The story is about its transformation from a prescriptive to an objective-based code to become more flexible and allow for easier innovation.

The Model National Building Code is the single most important regulatory infrastructure to shape all buildings in Canada. In examining barriers and obstacles to sustainability – the underlying purpose of this blog -- it is important that we understand how the building code operates. More critically, we also want to appreciate what it takes to modify or change a large regulatory instrument like the building code. That’s an essential part of the process of removing obstacles and barriers to innovation and change.

Codes are very complicated instruments. Changing the basis on which they are built is therefore a complex and lengthy process. The detailed case study, prepared by André Potworowski and three MBA students from the University of Ottawa, provides a narrative account of that historical transformation which spanned a full decade.

This is a classic story of the significant effort needed to re-design a well-established regulatory system to make it more responsive to the needs of society.

One of the key lessons learned, is that once the new code was published in 2005, key stakeholders also had to undergo change. There is a lot of learning and training required to work effectively and take full advantage of this new regulatory framework. An international workshop of code writers and regulators from 17 countries was held in Calgary in September 2009 to share experiences from the transition to new performance- and objective-based building codes. The conclusion: we still have a way to go before the transition is complete and all the benefits of the new performance-based codes are reaped.

Special thanks to Director General Bob Bowen of the National Research Council’s Institute for Research in Construction who agreed to sponsor this project, and to Denis Bergeron and Guy Gosselin who helped throughout the research, data collection and editing process of the final draft.

To access the case study, click here: The Transformation of the National Building Code of Canada: from Prescriptions to Objectives

Mar 3, 2010

In search of better indicators, signposts and metrics to help us achieve sustainability – the case of green housing

From our very first pre-workshop research and workshop proceedings two years ago, it became apparent that metrics and indicators were a critical element to the “Making it happen” project and the transition to a sustainable society.

Our first challenge was to define what we meant by a sustainable society, what were the vision and the metrics. So we reviewed over 50 studies, reports, and visions written over the last three decades. We also looked at a number of metrics or indicators used to define a sustainable society, such as energy consumption per capita, water consumed per capita and wastewater produced per capita, garbage generated per capita, and probably the hottest indicator, tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year.

Our main finding is that choosing indicators or metrics to describe a sustainable society, how you define them, what you actually measure and how, and achieving consensus on their relevance is a whole research area unto itself. For example, setting performance metrics or targets for greenhouse gas emissions is a highly charged political exercise – from the selection of the base year to the target year, all the way to deciding on the magnitude of the desired reductions. All these are subject to fierce debate.

More specifically, as we explored the barriers to shifting our residential housing stock to become sustainable or green, where we used the "net zero energy" houses as a benchmark, we discovered other challenges related to metrics.

For instance, a major challenge has to do with how to increase awareness of various stakeholder groups to the opportunity of green housing. This is a pre-requisite for the paradigm shift, and has to be achieved through such interventions as consumer education and information.

An essential component to achieve increased awareness is to demonstrate to all the members of the value chain (builders, vendors, real estate agents, consumers, and banks) the green value proposition, i.e. what is the real market value of an energy conserving feature. For example, most homeowners understand the positive impact on resale value of a house of a new $10,000 granite kitchen counter. Few people on the other hand appreciate the true dollar value of a $10,000 energy retrofit investment, e.g. achieved by installing extra insulation or triple glazed windows. We need clear agreed-upon indicators and metrics to capture and communicate this number down the value chain.

Another consideration is that an energy-efficient or "green" house looks no different from an ordinary house. We need some very clear, highly visible and simple indicators to show what is going on inside these energy-efficient houses, so normal people can readily see and appreciate what make them so unique and valuable.

At the end of the day, what the consumer really wants to know in real time is how much money these energy efficiency features are saving him or her, and what is the net operating cost of that property.

And when time-of-day meters become prevalent, consumers will want easy-to-read displays that make decision-making simple and easy: when to switch on major appliances, or delay it to another time of the day when the cost of electricity is cheaper. Already, gas and electric utilities are experimenting with various models.

On the financial side, the higher cost of green houses has led to a range of innovative financial instruments and business models. But an ongoing challenge is measuring and quantifying the dollar benefits of energy efficiency and environmental features, so that these can be better reflected in the market. Being able to measure the added value of "green" will facilitate the funding and sharing of the financial burden of the incremental cost of building an energy-efficient house.

In short, there is a need for a standardized simple energy efficiency and environmental performance rating system. The Energuide standard is well on the way to provide that. And NRC is developing a new energy building code. But these standards and metrics need to be visible throughout the marketplace, and should be reflected in such normal real estate transaction databases like the MLS. And building designer and inspectors, real estate agents, builders and bankers will all have to become thoroughly familiar with the new environmental and sustainability standards.

So trying to be green is good. But knowing precisely what is green, being able to measure and monitor it over the lifecycle of the product, so you can determine how well you’re doing is more critical.

Feb 16, 2010

Changing behavior -- the fun way

One of the recurring challenges throughout our investigation of obstacles and barriers to achieving sustainability, is the ability to change human behavior.

My friend Bob Czerny sent me the link to an interesting Swedish website sponsored by Volkswagen. Called the fun theory.com, it is “dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.” The site recently organized a contest to identify creative and fun ways to change people's behavior for a better world.

The result is a highly creative collection of videos and ideas where, through a system of simple fun rewards or incentives like sound effects, consumers are drawn to the preferred behavior pattern.

Here are some of the more intriguing ideas:

Encourage people to use (piano) stairs instead of escalators

Throw garbage into garbage cans

Place glass bottles into green recycling bins or “bottle banks”.


Feb 14, 2010

Meeting the new green house gas reduction targets – how do we make this happen?

Earlier this month, the Canadian government filed its official greenhouse gas reduction targets with United Nations. Many environmentalists object that these targets are too low. Others, however, are asking the more basic question: what can the government do to make it happen?

The short answer is that it's not a technology issue, it's a management issue. We don't need new technology to reduce our fossil fuel combustion and greenhouse gas emissions. We already have all the technology. Our research shows that there are no less than 160 such technologies available. They exist, they are on the market and they work. It is not a question of creating new technology. It’s a matter of removing barriers and obstacles to make sure the existing technologies and solutions are fully deployed.

In the housing sector alone, we could reduce our carbon emissions by 60 to 80% before 2030 if we deployed 55 of these technologies in the 10 to 15 million residential units across this country. So what’s really stopping us?

Certainly financing plays a role. In deploying green technologies, homeowners face an immediate up front cost that energy savings would only amortize over decades. Yet this could be addressed through incentives, redistribution of taxes, rebates, different types of mortgages, and even novel business models.

Other barriers show up in the lack of widely approved standards or codes to move in this direction. And an even bigger one is the acute lack of skilled trades to implement and install these technologies. By one estimate, we would need a million skilled trades people to fully retrofit Canada's existing housing stock.

There are many such barriers and taken together, they are slowing down progress toward sustainability to a crawl.

One especially difficult set of barrier consists of the complex patchwork of contradictory regulations and incentives that confuses and misdirects progress.

We all say we would like to encourage the use of public transit, yet we provide highways with a 100% subsidy from taxpayers while partially subsidized transit systems have to charge for ridership.

We recognize the advantages of higher densities in cities yet we tax buildings at higher rates than empty land and we tax high-rise buildings at higher rates than we do low rises.

Becoming green is not rocket science. It involves thousands of small decisions taken systematically and strategically to move toward sustainability.

A compelling example of such choices is offered by the University of Ottawa. Over the past 25 years, the university tripled both its surface area and its population, but its overall energy consumption remained relatively constant. In effect, its ability to use energy efficiently increased by a factor of three!

There was no magic bullet involved, Instead, thousands of individual decisions and choices had to be made relative to water faucets, pipes, air-conditioners, compressors, boilers, heat recovery etc. Through careful monitoring of daily energy use, the plant manager was able to pinpoint opportunities that increased efficiency. The result was that the University saved $28 million and it reduced its CO2 emissions by 30-40%!

What made this possible was the dedication of one individual able to make financial decisions and investments to optimize the energy system because he had the consistent backing of the university administration.

In the same way, we need governments at all levels in Canada to provide Canadians with a consistent regulatory framework that gives them incentives to make choices tending toward sustainability.

Some governments are beginning to realize this. Ontario's new Green Energy Act, passed last year, provides incentives to those wishing to install renewable energy in their homes and sell the excess to the province's electricity grid. But what really makes this piece of legislation remarkable is that it was accompanied by a careful review of other laws to identify those that might conflict with the Act’s core objectives.

The legislators recognized that aggressive promotion of renewable energy demands the removal of many different barriers across many different jurisdictions. So the Green Energy Act includes amendments to no less than 15 other provincial statutes including the Electricity Act, the Building Code Act and the Planning Act governing municipal zoning. It even amended the Co-operative Corporations Act to allow for new renewable energy co-operatives.

In other words, it is not new technology that is needed to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. Instead, we have to face up to our complex legislative and regulatory systems. We really need the will to get down to the nitty-gritty of identifying and removing the many small institutional and bureaucratic barriers that are stopping us from moving to sustainability.