2016 Resolution: Measure Your Personal Carbon Footprint

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The Urgency

It is almost 2 months since the historical COP21 was successfully held. The fact that 196 delegations gathered in Paris – the first agreement that takes ALL nations in the world to fight climate change – building on foundation of universal commitments should not be underappreciated. Instead, it renews the hope as we enter 2016 and we should be motivated than before to be part of the change.

Not long after the Paris Agreement, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2016 put the “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as the greatest global risk in terms of impact, which is also the first time ever to put environmental issues on the top rank since the report’s initial publication. Climate change was considered to have potentially greater impact than weapons of mass destruction (2nd), water crises (3rd), large-scale involuntary migration (4th) and severe energy price shock (5th). It is, moreover, on the third riskiest in terms of likelihood, just behind large-scale involuntary migration (1st) and extreme weather events (2nd).

Yes, everyone knew there is a risk of global warming since several years ago. But now the risk has never been this high and this close than today. We are not living in a Business-As-Usual era anymore. Live with climate change breakthrough in mind should be everyone’s 2016 resolution.

Lifestyle Does Count

Two-thirds of people believed that major change in the way they live is needed to reduce the effect of global climate change, rather than relying on technology advances alone, according to Global Attitude Survey 2015 by Pew Research Center. While people recognized the need to change, did the survey ask if they were wiling to make those lifestyle changes? If we continue to believe that we as an individual are powerless to have significant contribution in emission reduction and only governments and “green” organizations can, then it is almost impossible for us to make any changes to our lifestyle. Thus, we need to nudge ourselves into countable action.

Self-Measurement Challenge

As Peter Drucker famously said “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The world leaders are currently working hard to follow up the Paris Agreement with massive-scale strategic framework for monitoring progress of emission reduction and holding countries accountable. Meanwhile, buildings have LEED rating system and food with its USDA certification or other organic label. We can see that the nations, buildings and food have similar non-enforcement but measurable target called “name and encouraged” system going on. Now what about us? In the recent years we may have been using LED bulbs, use less water, more public transit, shop with reusable bag, throw trash in separate bins, and feel satisfied about being “green” enough. But without knowing how big or small does our lifestyle actually count to the global emission reduction or compare to others, it can be difficult to increase our impact or even maintain it.

I found this really cool social platform in the internet called Oroeco, a web and mobile application that helps us measure our personal lifestyle impact to the environment. It can give tips on how to reduce carbon footprint, create fun competition with friends, and at the same time shows how much money we save. Check out this video. Isn’t it interesting to see more green social platforms become popular as much as other photo-sharing social media? I hope you find it exciting too and help spread this app to your community!

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“The best deal possible in Paris will still only get us halfway to solving climate change. Climate change is a massive collective action problem that we all contribute to through our lifestyle choices, including our diet, shopping, transportation and home energy decisions. Governments can play a role in making our choices cleaner, but we also need incentives in the right places to nudge us towards cleaner choices on a daily basis.”Ian Monroe, founder and CEO of Oroeco

Making a Tesla

JP2UhEz.jpgOn West Coast, we are proud of being an environmentalist. We recycle, bicycle and use public transit. There are even more plug-in electric cars on the roads. Tesla S, an all-electric sport sedan, starts as low as $70,000 and average about $100,000. With imagine of speed and environment-friendly, Tesla became a phenomenon on the market in recent years even at such high price.

However, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, was criticized for getting government subsidies. An estimated amount 4.9 Billion dollar of government support has been distributed to benefit Musk’s Tesla Motor, SolarCity and Space X in past couple years. This subsidies includes grants, long term government loan with low interest, $7,500 federal tax credit (an additional $2,500 rebate in California) per car and more.  Even with help from federal government, Tesla Motor is still losing $4,000 on every car it sells.

It is difficult to calculate the accurate cost of a Tesla vehicle without government support, but it is likely fewer people would choose to buy Tesla and the company has already gone out of business. Is it what we want?

New technologies are costly and unpredictable. An innovated private company, such as tesla, could hardly survive on competitive market. Vehicle customers would prefer to buy a $50,000 gas-powered one than $ 150,000 priced electric car if they perform similarly.

In The Carbon Efficient City, authors suggest “Subsidies of new technologies such as wind may be helpful in the short term but in all likelihood would be unnecessary if the playing field were leveled for new wind projects developed by utilities or by practically enabling distributed generation”. In our Tesla case, government subsidies is major reason people are buying electric cars, and it would be true in the future until current technology evolve to be efficient.

If government are too conservative to spend in innovation, then the society would not move forward.

Urban Dance Perspective Change

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 5.52.40 PM.pngI saw the most beautiful thing this week. Watch this video, I promise you’ll be in awe. After you watch, read the below. 

“Dance and art should actually be seen as a utility, not a commodity–like water and power, we all need it. What BANDALOOP does is we take dance out of the somewhat myopic elitist confines that it is traditionally seen and it brings it to the people.” ~Amelia Rudolph (TedX, Dance from Thin Air)

How do we deal with fear of the unknown, especially when that fear comes from experience of frameworks and interfaces that have failed? Fear usually has to do with loss or thinking you’ll get the short end of the stick. It’s very biological and very ingrained in our hearts and minds. The UW World Series had a meeting this week in which very different people including myself came to the same table to discuss how to get student populations on campus involved in performing arts.
Celebrating our society and our communities and our cities, and “changing what public space is” (as Amelia says), needs to include treating our fears of the frameworks and interfaces we have memories of. Making new models awesome and touching the heart can embolden groups to take on the challenges of making cities better. Amelia 1) makes people see differently, 2) engages them in the new perspective to pull ideas and connections out, and 3) leads us to change the framework we’ve traditionally seen from. These are the same three things proposed in The Carbon Efficient City. I believe that we won’t truly have enough courage to make the changes proposed by the Hurd authors until we include art and thus fall in love again. In love we conquer all. Right now I see fear in cities, not love. Dance triggers community, community is held together by love. Let’s help urban dwellers see their urban environment different, so they will then feel a purpose to do all the things proposed in The Carbon Efficient City.

Regulation? Yay or Nay.

I often question the government’s involvement in society. There seems to be so much waste, ineffectiveness, and often special interests, especially at a federal level. I highly value the ability to make choices because I perceive them to be beneficial for myself and for others. When an entity (such as the government) requires me to do something for the benefit of others it deflates my sails a bit.

While reading this week, my thoughts were all over the place. One moment I would be like, “absolutely we should do that so future earth isn’t a shitty place.” A moment later I would think, “well if I agree to this I can kiss another piece of my happiness goodbye.”

Looking at carbon emissions from a health/environmental impact the same way we do with cigarettes, and taxing them similarly, seemed like a rational and fair approach. Removing energy subsidies to level the playing field for all forms of energy – yes, please. Then I started reading about regulation, and how we need a system overhaul to efficiently regulate and track carbon emissions and water usage. In theory, this seemed like it had the legs to streamline processes and make the reporting less burdensome, but the US government’s track record of accomplishing this is very short. I didn’t have much faith in its ability to be implemented. I figured, in writing the legislation, politicians would figure out a way to bloat the program.

Then I read State of Washington house bills 1662 and 2684. 1662 deals with regulating greenhouse gas emissions and 2684 deals with design-build construction of transportation projects. Both were encouraging in their own way. It was good to see, at a state level, legislation being written detailing how to appropriately regulate business in regards to carbon emissions. What was especially encouraging to me though was at the end of bill 2684:
“When the department of transportation shifts to utilizing a design-build approach for all of its construction projects, it is clear that the current staffing levels at the department will be unnecessary. Therefore, the department is directed to develop a plan to reduce the size of its engineering and technical workforce to a level commensurate with its role of planning and overseeing the efficient functioning of the state’s transportation system.” (House Bill 2684)
It is encouraging to see legislation meaningfully addressing our future needs (HS 1662) and legislation be mindful of excessive government spending (HS 2684). It is the creativity in both these bills which helps confirm to me what AP discussed in her book regarding regulatory change being feasible and scalable. In summation I say Yay.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

I used to lead environmental education outreach classes in Durham, NC elementary schools. One of my favorite activities to run was a recycling relay – I brought a bag full of cans, tin foil, bottles, some snack wrappers, tissue paper and other little items, and teams had to separate out which items were recyclable and which would head to a landfill. This challenge was so hard. Why can you recycle an cereal box but not a pizza box? Soda bottles but not prescription bottles? Printer paper but not waxed paper?

Years later, I feel like I do this challenge every day. I live in a house with 6 people and I’m constantly picking frozen food wrappers and tissue paper out of the recycling. I’m sure I try to recycle things that can’t be recycled, or take things out of the bin that actually could get recycled. I try really hard to be “green” and recycle everything I can, and I still feel like I miss the mark all the time. Even when checking on the Seattle Public Utilities website, the information can be really confusing and contradictory. How can we expect everyone to recycle when it’s so complicated?

The main reason people don’t recycle is because it is often inconvenient and confusing. Cities need to work harder to make sure that recycling bins are placed alongside garbage bins in public places, and require that businesses place them together as well so that inconvenience can’t be used as an argument against recycling. The city should also provide labels for both public and private use that clearly denote – both visually and verbally – what kinds of products can be placed in recycling bins.

A lot of businesses in the Seattle area have already made great strides to make recycling (and composting!) really easy to figure out. Some have clearly marked receptacles separated with images showing where each item you may have purchased can be appropriately discarded. SeaTac Airport has very well labeled bins that distinctly show what can and cannot be recycled or composted. SeaTac is particularly notable because the multi-lingual audience can navigate the tricky system by using the visuals provided on the bins.

Recycling should be second nature, but it’s hard to form a habit when the process is so convoluted. Until recycling procedures can be standardized nationally, local governments should take on the burden of ensuring their residents are appropriately educated about what materials can or cannot be recycled.

The Greenroads Rating System

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Over the past couple decades the LEED rating system has taken its place as the most widely used and trusted rating systems for green buildings around the world. The primary goals of a LEED building are to have a positive impact on the health of occupants while promoting renewable, clean energy.

Typically buildings have garnered most of the attention in green construction, and rightfully so. It is widely known that generating electricity (used mostly by buildings) makes the largest contribution to GHG emissions in the US. What most people do not know is that the transportation sector contributes almost the same amount – see the pie chart from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). In fact, about 1/3 of all GHG emissions comes from the transportation sector. That figure not only includes emissions from the vehicles using the routes, it also incorporates the emissions contributions from construction and maintenance.

GHG Emissions by Sector Pie Chart 1The Greenroads rating system, developed right here at the University of Washington, is a holistic approach to building and maintaining a road in a way that is gentle on the environment. A set of prerequisites that address erosion, noise, light pollution, etc. must first be met. Further certification is achieved by accumulating points for going above and beyond the prerequisites. The system includes metrics for storm water management, wildlife habitat conservation, work zone health and safety, community connectivity, construction materials, travel time, life cycle costs, and so much more.

The Greenroads rating system is still young – less than 5 years old – and it remains the only third-party, points-based system available to certify sustainable transportation infrastructure projects. If it catches on it will standardize how road projects are measured for sustainability.

As previously mentioned, the Greenroads system is very similar to LEED. Numerous studies have been done on LEED buildings and the overwhelming majority, including this one done by the US Department of Energy (http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/Green_Building_Performance.pdf), show that in the long run certified buildings save money and are better for the environment. The same results should be expected for green roads.

I believe that Greenroads can become the leading rating system for sustainable roads in the US and maybe one day, the world. The problem is that right now most people do not know about it. The best thing we can do is advertise it. Share it with friends and construction companies and show it off at transportation conferences. Thanks to social media and improved communications systems, ideas are traveling faster than ever. And the quicker it gains support the quicker it will develop into the transportation sustainability rating system we need.

For more information visit- https://www.greenroads.org/.

 

Bus or Bust…

Every day I take the bus in and out of the city.  As we zip past all the slow moving traffic along the HOV (or bus lane), I always look out and wonder what can be done to reduce traffic and increase public transportation usage.  According to SDOT, 35.8% of commuters rode the bus compared to 33.7% of those that drove alone.  If you take into account the rail and ferry, you’re looking at 42.3% of commuters that take public transportation.  I try to imagine how different the city would be if only those 33.7% of commuters took public transportation.

As an eight year Seattle resident, I am impressed with the city’s natural beauty and commitment to sustainability.  However, I also noticed that ongoing sustainable incentivizing actions could go even further.  I’d like to advocate for that here.  During this week’s reading, I became interested in the concept of enabling frameworks.  Seattle’s incentivizing should be coming from the government and not from the private sector.  Let’s take a look at examples of cities where the Government took initiatives to promote public transport.  The examples of public transportation initiatives taken by cities such as Bogota’s investment in bus transport or London’s congestion charge to help limit drivers is inspiring and can be learned from.

Since arriving in Seattle I noticed that many employers subsidize the Orca card (again from the private side).  The companies that subsidize the card get tax incentives or tax free options for providing subsidized cards.  The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2013 was also a positive step, providing the pretax benefits to those who take mass transit as to those who opt to drive.  Yet both of these options disproportionately benefit people who can afford to set aside pretax dollars, and those who have employers who offer subsidized transit cards.  This leaves a large portion of the transit population (namely, those who are low-income) out of the ability to receive such incentives to commute.  To encourage more people to take transit, I propose that the incentive go directly to the rider.  This is how to accomplish it:

  • Provide a rebate or tax credit for metro users.  This could be done in many ways, including tracking directly through an orca card, tracked through an app, or other.  If tracked through an Orca card, discounted or free cards could be given to people living near or below the poverty line.  The rebate could be given in several ways, including providing a check with a pre-determined amount that corresponds to rides taken on a monthly or yearly basis, a credit on a metro app or other metro card, a discount on other city services such as light energy or water.
  • After a predetermined time where transit ridership has increased and more revenue is available, expand the current bike network in the city by building protected bike lane fares from heaving populated neighborhoods to existing green trails (such as from Ballard to the Burke Gilman trail).  An aspirational vision of this project could even have greenways that connect the BG trail or SLU trails to work centers mid and east downtown.

As these incentives promote transit/biking, ridership increases, traffic congestion lessens, air quality improves, public health improves, and more hesitant bike commuters feel safer to commute to work.