Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is Equity?

When discussing equity, very few people are actually able to articulate what it means. In fact, equity seems to suffer a fate worse than many other fair-intentioned words like sustainable development. For instance, while Reference Business describes sustainable development as a much maligned and misunderstood term, “equity” did not even make the cut for their dictionary. Obviously the concept has not percolated into everyday business practice. Equity has its origins in the latin aequits, or aequus that means even or fair. Most dictionaries equate “equity” to fairness or a lack of undesirable qualities such as prejudice, injustice, and partiality. While the word did not show up in Reference Business, some business and industrial psychologists study equity issues for their implications on employee motivation. For them “equity” describes whether an employee feels his/her compensation is commiserate with his/her contributions. In finance, “equity” is a measure of percentage ownership of a property based on one’s contribution towards its principal value. Both concepts are relevant in the development of a definition for socio-economic-environmental equity. Defining a nebulous term “equity” with another vague concept like fairness is not helpful. Fairness, too, is a subjective value and is not associated with visible indicators or tangible dimensions. In order to integrate socio-economic-environmental equity in our work, we have developed and use SEE-Equity Index.™ This Index uses a number of qualifiers and defines outcomes that allow us to measure equity. This blog entry presents three of the fundamental measures in the Equity Index; an unequal context, disproportional response, and high level of predictability. In 1991, I wrote for Professor Edward Blakely’s economic development class a paper titled “Creating Equity in an Inequitable Climate.” My research and strategies delved into correcting inequitable opportunities for wealth generation that were then accessible to minority residents of Oakland. This blog draws from that discussion but also builds on the policy work this author has the honor of doing with a diverse group of teachers, administrators and parents for the Seattle School District’s Race and Equity Committee. First and foremost, equity should not be confused or likened to equality. Equality or egalitarianism is a powerful concept and a lofty goal, but differs greatly from the premise behind equity. In an egalitarian society the many characteristics that might distinguish one person from the next (gender, age, weight, race, sexual preference, looks, height etc.) are irrelevant since everyone has equal access to schools, jobs, houses etc. Therefore in an egalitarian society, theoretically equal socio-economic-environmental infrastructure guarantees rather predictable and comparable results, irrespective of inherent differences between two people. The concept of equity makes sense ONLY if we acknowledge that we have never been an equal society and are in fact moving further away from a relatively egalitarian state in every sphere of society; economics, politics, health among many others. Within this reality, equity offers a proactive framework for tempering the growing disparities. An equitable society, therefore relies on unpredictable outcomes, since outcomes are not predicated by an applicant's race, social background, age etc. and instead on his/her skills. Equity presumes that while there will be certain differences in neighborhood or income characteristics (among others), this should not be predictive of a person’s success in academics, opportunity or worth. Equity underscores the belief that each one of us have equally high potential to perform and contribute to society in our respective fields of interest IF provided a supportive environment. Unfortunately, irrespective of where one is within the continental United States, opportunities for societal advancement and others including access to jobs, income levels, healthy food choices, housing, self-worth etc. are unequally distributed and accessible. Data also indicates that the discrepancies follow underlying trends in poverty distribution, gender, race etc. This predictability in outcomes reveals that we are enduring a rather inequitable society. If we start with these two basic attributes, inequity can be measured. A simple formula for calculating inequity is that of a negative relationship of 1:1 or higher between a desirable outcome (job, contract, salary etc) and a socio-economic-environmental condition. In other words, if being poor is a guarantee of failing in academia (being poor=academic failure) then this indicates that the academic climate is inequitable. If not corrected, this academic climate will unfairly commit students from poor families to a never-ending intergenerational cycle of poverty, limited access to opportunity, poor health and other ills. Therefore, equity inherently challenges concepts that promote equality other than perhaps, within a court of law. So how do we move towards an equitable society - making sure that resources are distributed EQUALLY between different socioeconomic groups? To the contrary, within an inequitable society, programs that distribute resources or benefits equally actually perpetuate inequity. For instance, for an impoverished child and one from a middle class neighborhood to succeed within an excellent academic climate, the former will need help in additional sectors (social, psychological, health, nutrition etc). The public investment that the impoverished child will need in order to live up to his/her potential will therefore be significantly higher than the other child. Thus redressing inequities must be accompanied by a deliberate effort to redistribute resources to temper the differences and compensate for the structural systems that assure success of certain groups over others. The concept of equity is thus fundamentally antithetical to equality and proportionality. Proportionality dictates that if a community is wealthier and generates more taxes, it must be accorded greater public benefits. This notion of proportionality aligns very closely to the feelings of “entitlement” or “privilege.” Privilege celebrates the self and discounts the advantages that the self has enjoyed from the systemic contributions of the rest of society towards its success. Privilege undervalues the complex social infrastructure in place that subsidizes each of our lives, either directly or indirectly. This may pertain to the advantages of living in a wealthy community, or to a family’s intergenerational wealth, education, and so on. Since work is differentially priced in our capitalistic economy, it can be extrapolated that the higher income brackets survive only because other contributions are valued lower. In reality, society cannot exist without the contributions of poorly valued services (such as school teachers, military staff and veterans, municipal workers, volunteer firefighters etc). If all occupations were valued equally, then there would be no disparities across skills. But this is not the premise of capitalism that drives the United States economy. It is within this context of differential value that the notion of entitlement flourishes. In turn it feeds into weak individual connections to the larger community and further erodes the concept of “common good.” In a climate of privilege, equity is impossible. Equity can succeed only when individuals can appreciate the personal, moral, social and economic benefits he or she has been accorded from his or her racial background, economic status, geographic origin etc. Moreover, one from a privileged scenario must then desire to “give back” to their silent champions and supporters. Therefore societies that have thriving equitable programs acknowledge that privilege exists, identifies causes and solutions, and measures their progress towards their equity goals. So if equity is not equal or proportional treatment and is not predictable, then what is it? It is unpredictable, measurable, and political. Since there is no empirical ratio that is a representation of equity, setting equity goals is a political process that must be decided by decision makers as well as those affected. Therefore it is crucial to carefully select those who get involved and who benefit from equity programs. From staff that defines the policy and distributes the financing for the program, through those who service and are contracted through the program, to finally those who are invited into these discussions, there must be a consistent commitment and assessment of equitable benefits and participation at each step of this process. It is ironic that in a society renowned for its civic and volunteer activities any government policies that are directed at redistributing resources (one of the main functions of taxation) are met with vehement opposition and is likened at worst to socialism and in the best of terms, with government high-handedness. Despite this apathy towards equity, we conclude with general optimism regarding the longevity of the term. In ”Words that Sell,” Futerra published the results of their focus groups’ reaction to terms often used in the sustainability lexicon. This provides some very interesting insights into how the typical non-technical population reacts to fashionable words. A conclusion that really stood out for this author is that terms that suggested community or shared interest appeared to resonate more with the focus groups over terms associated with individual or personal accountability. Also, words that created guilt were depreciated while others that were fun, had connotative meanings and were positive, even uplifting, received very favorable ratings. Unfortunately, “equity” was not included in this review. To this author however, “equity”, while not fun or engaging, is loaded with optimism and speaks to a shared responsibility. As there is greater appreciation for how everyone benefits through equitable programs and funding, it will become an intrinsic element of socio-economic-environmental development. A tool like our SEE-Equity Index™ helps measure apparent progress towards reducing disparities and predictability in life paths, can specify the type, and calculate the amount of investment that will be necessary to reach established equity goals. If Futerra’s research is accurate, equity is here to stay. Lets not lose it among other jargon, and bring it back to where it needs to be – upfront and center within social dialogue.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Assisted Natural Regeneration: The low hanging fruit of forest restoration. Aaron D. Clark Ph.D. (

As human populations become increasingly urbanized, the abandonment of rural landscapes is allowing forests to naturally regenerate in many parts of the world and decreasing the overall global rates of deforestation significantly (FAO global forest resources assessment). Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR) is a method of aiding the natural process already underway on abandoned agricultural sites to encourage, and improve the process of natural regeneration (see here ).

The power of the ANR approach comes from its ease of application, assisting volunteer saplings, rather than planting new ones, for the majority of the regenerating forest. By giving established saplings an improved chance to thrive and avoiding the high costs and generally lower success rates of transplanting, ANR methods are proving to be an effective low cost approach to reforestation. Additionally, by focusing on the conversion of agricultural land to forest, the relative impact of ANR activities in terms of environmental goods and services, natural capital, and biodiversity is especially high. Unlike many types of ecosystem restoration, ANR projects are assured success because in most cases natural regeneration is already underway, or is at least ecologically favored in the long term.

While ANR is already proving itself a powerful tool in the effort to reverse global deforestation, it is important to recognize its limitations and avoid making it into a panacea. ANR works well only if natural regeneration is already happening, which generally requires that the deforested area is near to remnant forests and thereby sources of tree seeds. Even in the case of well-suited sites for ANR, the tree species that establish may be quite different from the composition of the original native forest that once stood on that site. Further restoration work can be done, including transplanting under-represented species into an ANR site, but this can significantly increase costs. Regenerating any forest that truly equals a native, mature forest’s ecological value is probably impossible or at least exceedingly costly on anything but the longest of time scales. Because a mature, native forest in any region is an intricate collection of diversity and functions, it should be kept in mind that no form of regeneration is a substitute for the conservation and preservation of existing undisturbed forests.

ANR represents a great movement in reforestation, both in terms of its impact and its example. By assisting in a beneficial process that is already underway and favored by natural processes, ANR does what all good agents of change should do, that is find the lowest hanging fruit with the greatest value, pick it and plant it.

Further reading:
BBC: Locals 'can play key role in helping forests recover':
BBC: ‘No substitute’ for virgin forests:

FAO: Assisted Natural Regeneration of Forests:

FAO global forest resources assessment:

Aide, T. M., Zimmerman, J. K., Pascarella, J. B., Rivera, L. and Marcano-Vega, H. (2000), Forest Regeneration in a Chronosequence of Tropical Abandoned Pastures: Implications for Restoration Ecology. Restoration Ecology, 8: 328–338. doi: 10.1046/j.1526-100x.2000.80048.x,%20T.M.%20et%20al.%202000.pdf

Friday, November 4, 2011

Transferring Banks Today? Don’t Give up on Community Banks and Credit Unions Yet

To many individuals and public institutions, the past few years have been financially very challenging. The financial crisis not only melted away individuals’ life savings and investments, but also the financial solvency of many local governments. You know you are a global economy when, even as a small town you are not immune to this meltdown. At a recent OECD conference on Beyond the GDP, I heard the grim proclamation by renowned United States economists that the world is no longer looking to the United States for economic policies or strategies. Instead European, Australian and Asian politicians are demanding that their economists and statisticians explain to them why people are angry; what they value; and where policies are misaligned with the true well-being of the people (a future blog will discuss this world changing event in more detail).

Unfortunately, this does not sound like our typical politicians here in the United States. In Washington State, representatives such as Jim McDermott have been exploiting technology while also having coffee with his constituencies to ask these very questions - easy ways to understand their priorities. Hopefully by thus connecting with the people, representatives will vote on legislation that represent our priorities and not that of special interests.

Yet, Congressman McDermott might be unique in this regard. Not all of us get the same sense from our representatives. In fact our middle class, veterans, college students, teachers, and others are awakening to the reality that their voices are not being reflected in State and Federal policies. If there are those of us who were surprised at the lack of outrage at what was happening in the financial world for the past 10 years such as the growing inequity and home foreclosures, rising debt and so on, we have been duly silenced by the passion and infectious spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement across the United States and the world (see this map).

What makes this reality tough to bear is the research that shows that inequity in wealth and income in the United States was no accident, but the result of very deliberate machinations at the federal level. For the past 10-15 years generously funded special interests have completely overhauled the well-intentioned regulations and finance industry practices that prior generations set up more than 50 years ago. DEMOS, a non-profit research, policy and advocacy group out of New York City offers a detailed account of these mis-aligned regulations. If you need further explanations pick up the book that I just finished reading called “What’s the Economy for Anyway” by Washington economist David Batker. It is an easy read for the non-initiated. It helps connect the dots between economic policies, lack of jobs and reduced human well-being that so many of us are experiencing.

In the 21st Century, there is a need to rebuild the strong foundations that have been laid over the past 100 years, those that have allowed this State to weather the economic meltdown much better than others parts of the country. This foundation consists of the many community banks and credit unions that have survived the global economic meltdown. Washington chartered banks manage assets of more than $47 billion. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), the federal agency overseeing banks with assets less than $10 billion, 16 banks in Washington State have failed since January 2009 (Minnesota had 18; California 39; Illinois 50; Florida 57 and Georgia had 72). In Washington State the failures can be directly attributed to the failure of the sub-prime fiasco that caused a countrywide housing market collapse. This crippled developers’ ability to refinance their outstanding loans through small community banks, in effect causing several banks to fail.

Notwithstanding these failures, small community banks offer a level of financial resilience that cannot be offered by large international banks, as we found out in 1989 (S&L scandal), 2000 (dot com bust) and again in 2007 (sub-prime mortgage failure). However, to lay the foundation of a sustainable economy comprising community banks and credit unions to compliment large national banks, we have to work with our State representatives to make sure that all precautionary measures are in place to reduce the chances of any future failures. In the 2010 State legislative session, several key corrective measures were taken, however, there have been no studies to ensure that these measures are adequate. Secondly, individuals, state institutions, local and county governments can also invest in community banks and credit unions rather than funding the national banking system. These banks offer competitive interest rates and a stable economic climate that can become the backbone of a full economic recovery in Washington State.

Lastly, we can work with community banks and credit unions to make sure that investing in local businesses and helping start up new businesses are priorities, rather than investing in out of state opportunities. This will doubly insure that valuable Washington State dollars are recirculated in a manner that benefits state residents and businesses. Moreover, new and revived businesses will generate new sales taxes for state coffers.

While our individual reinvestments into these banks can make a difference, the economy can be revived faster through the participation of the very affluent in the State. In order to be able to loan, these banks are required to demonstrate that 15% of their loans are matched by guaranteed capital assets. Last year, Washington State had 226,000 millionaires. Furthermore, ten of the world’s top 900 billionaires reside in this State and have assets that add up to $105 billion. What if all these residents banked only 0.035% of their assets in Washington State community banks? This would create the $7 billion (15% of assets) that the community banks need in new capital to start loaning again. Moreover, with the oversight of these savvy co-investors we can be assured that the new loans will have stringent criteria to prevent future failures.

This would be an important investment since it would provide the stability that many community banks need to invest into local government projects. After the first 2009 failure of a community bank in the state, new regulations require that all banks that take public funds must post 100% collateral for public deposits that are not federally insured. There are now more than five Washington chartered community banks qualified to be public depositaries. This number will only increase if private funds multiply the community banks’ access to capital.

Another strategy for encouraging dollar recirculation within the state economy is setting up an investment mechanism beyond the FDIC’s $10 billion limits. This could be in the form of a State bank; referring more to its geographic reach and commitment rather than one regulated by the state.

Similar to the tax dollar federal bailouts of large banks, that was tied to an obligation to repay the government, a State bank could offer key collateral for private entities in Washington State to invest some of their revenues for recirculation and credit support of new businesses in the State. The interest from investment into state businesses could be shared between private investors and public partners. Bill 1320 that was introduced the past year had opposition from expected quarters, such as large banks. However, setting up a State bank is more a function of the private investment sector in Washington State and less a legislative initiative. Once the bank is established, the state can choose to move its tax revenues from Bank of America (a fee-income based bank that does not serve the average resident) to a State bank that can be based on an income-fee driven bank model. Big banks are also susceptible to collapse, and even the future of Bank of America has come into question recently. While the focus in Olympia remains on cutting, eliminating and so on, the real opportunity lies in leveraging local resources that are being “leaked” to a national and perhaps international economy, with limited returns to Washington state residents.

So if you are thinking of transferring banks – act on it soon. Do your homework – ask questions and reward your community banks and credit unions by banking your money with them. Who knows, it might help re-open your corner bakery that shut down 2 years ago from a lack of credit and falling revenue. Perhaps you son could work there after school and bring some extra cash back home to you. That’s how a re-circulating economy works. Without you, it fails.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Racing to the Bottom?

Recently, I caught an article in the Seattle Times about the lack of racial diversity in many leading cities in the country. What got this report attention is that other than three, the rest of the top 10 large cities for high percentage of non-hispanic whites are cities in northern states. More surprisingly, as you drill into the list, 4 of these northern cities are known for their so-called progressive ideals: Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and Colorado Springs.
This article is a great example of the dangers of poorly defined indicators that have no reference; it offers little understanding of the phenomenon - geo spatially, over time and across cultures. It mentions only in passing that Portland has remained at the top for decades, but has the total number of minorities been falling or is it the same as it was in 1970? For Seattle, there is some discussion that it has risen in the ranks (by percentage) of less diverse places over the past decade – but since the city’s population has been increasing at the same time, could it be that the actual numbers have been increasing, but perhaps at a slower rate than the growth of total population? Or, that thanks to the economic boom in the Seattle region, many minorities in the city proper have sold their inner city properties and have moved to higher-quality and lower priced housing in suburban communities? In fact, this trend is reflected across most metropolitan areas in the country.
Selected appropriately, data can be compiled and measured against each other to tell compelling stories; and in fact become indicators that reflect our values. There are dangers in presenting data alone as indicators, since they fail to spur meaningful and fruitful discussion, policy or action.
It appears that this article was intending to refer to social intolerance (and I was surprised to find that Seattle was right behind Louisville, Kentucky) but social trends need as much qualitative data as quantitative reasoning to establish trends in arenas that are a reflection of personal experiences. In fact according to Dan Westneat of the Seattle Times for another indicator compiled by the Census, called dissimilarity that measures geographical integration, Seattle ranks very high.
What struck me was that so many of the top 10 cities cited in the article have a reputation as leading Green cities in the country. This bolsters the argument and growing resentment towards environmentalism that it is indeed a white middle class value. It provides greater reason for socially more progressive cities to continue to focus on their social infrastructure than the environment. Thankfully cities like Oakland, among the top 10 most diverse communities are showing how this need not be the path. Oakland is leveraging its diversity to emphasize the environmentalism-jobs connection in a positive way, thanks to the work of activists such as Van Jones.
This article also rubs salt into the wound that is often brought up by the Seattle Times. There has been much discussion about how institutions struggle to maintain their high integration numbers with the passage of a poorly defined law in 1998. I-200 prohibited for the first time the past practice of “preferential treatment” based on race or gender in public contracting, public hiring and public education. The law provides that, "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.
New to the City at that time, this law seemed arbitrary to me since there were no references to studies that showed that having integrated contractor-teams, schools or workplaces were in any way damaging the economy. What were the indications that showed that integrating small or minority businesses in commerce was resulting in lower quality outcomes? Perhaps, there could have been improvements to how they were being implemented; but there were few facts that backed the perception that minorities in any way under performed when compared to their white counterparts in similar circumstances that include social integration, encouragement, trust and fairness. In fact, this past integration did not show a “preference” for lower standards in any way, but recognized the latent perceptions simmering across the country that links quality to race. I will contend that for a progressive city such as Seattle this integration reflected the desire to institutionalize equity, knowing that to create a tolerant society would demand nothing less.
A decade later, the damages that such a poorly thought out law can bring about are evident and much written about in our local newspapers. It is clear that left to our devices, there is a general preference for intolerance and segregation over compassion and integration. Whether it is at advanced learning schools, colleges, work place, government, the tolerant rich social infrastructure that was in place in 1990s has vanished. The leaders of the 60s movement are retiring, and along with them their values. Notable discrimination lawsuits have been filed and won against large companies, government agencies and others.
The later generations have shown little interest in integration, seeming to favor instead advancement based on race and appearances. Remote concepts such as World Trade and the Environment catch their imaginations rather than the well being of their fellow Washingtonians; immigrant or otherwise.
Seattle has become a place where the practice of social tolerance and fairness flourishes as a personal choice, without any institutionalized backing. At the same time, over the past decade discrimination has undoubtedly taken hold of this city’s historically tolerant institutions. This is more of an anecdotal observation. I wish there was research confirming this. Non-diverse Boards, companies and leadership groups make decisions that further institutionalize disparities. This is a climate in which nepotism and other ills flourish. In fact, both whites and non-whites will contend that preference based on race has become the norm in contracting, hiring, benefits among others, and forced equity is but an artifact from the past.
Dan Westneat commented that several people remarked, "So what if we are largely white?" This comment to me is an indicator of several undesirable attitudes coloring current civil society. History has shown over and over that as this intolerance takes hold a City's reputation and ability to compete in the world market is heavily compromised. While there are no numbers to indicate the amount, anecdotally I can attest that Seattle continues to draw the idealists; social, environmental and political. There is a great desire particularly among the youth to find environments that resonate with their need to create a just and fair society. In today's business climate, innovation, wealth, and progress comes in all shades and from every corner of the world. I have always wondered why Portland fared worse than Seattle in its economy. I have found few studies that have analyzed this. Could deeply seated intolerance be causing it to miss out on world class opportunities?
A decade after I-200, it is now time for Washington to see how it is faring in terms of social equity and financial justice. Has I-200 created the future that it intended to? If not, what are the unintended consequences? Are public goodies such as access to good teachers, facilities, contracts being shared equally across geographies and race or are we seeing a gradual tendency towards xenophobia or any other cultural phobia? We need our leaders to gather important data (qualitative as well) that will populate relevant indicators of social equity. The indicators must reflect our values, only then can we be assured that as a society, we can be proud of the direction we are headed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reimagining Energy Delivery - A 21st Century Counterpoint

What with the nuclear tragedy in Japan; mounting concerns about global warming amplifying the demand for energy; and fears of oil depletion – we simply cannot ignore the need for thoughtful planning to secure this country’s energy future. Typical debates have been mired in questions surrounding the domestic availability of a fuel and securing energy independence versus reducing carbon emissions through cleaner options such as nuclear, solar, geothermal or wind. These are valid questions.
However, policy planning should be based on a detailed analysis of data, and guided by a national debate over our goals for an energy future. The public has not been able to participate in the energy debate in the past in a meaningful manner. Therefore decisions related to this trillion-dollar industry (including billion dollar public investments) have been left to lobbyists of various energy companies and our representatives in the federal government.
A review of energy data reveals that in the past our national policies have supported the growth of domestic coal and nuclear energy, as well as imported oil and natural gas, with limited incentives for the alternative energy sectors. The early interest in hydropower was soon overshadowed by the ability to place coal-powered industries anywhere. At the same time, national policies perpetuated a system of centralized energy generation over stimulating a distributed generation portfolio.
There are some obvious reasons for these. For instance, at that time, this country boasted large manufacturing centers that needed uninterrupted and concentrated energy. Moreover the technology that would allow distributed generation was not available. These arguments, however, are no longer valid. We have a limited number of heavy industries left in this country that need such concentrated power, most of which are power plants. Though there is a need to improve storage solutions and conversion technologies for solar and wind power, even today without these improvements, they outperform most other energy sources in their lifecycle performance. Lastly, the Smart Grid Technology allows for a distributed energy system that was not feasible before.
Also, lets not forget that centralized power generation is an inefficient means of producing energy and that conservation remains the most viable and lucrative investment in the energy arena.
A review of our energy use policies for the past 60 years (described in depth in the report that CREƄ prepared for the RICS Foundation) describes the increasing inefficiencies we have tolerated in our energy generation. A fact not much known is that thanks to a number of key initiatives taken at the federal level in the late 70s, the consumption of energy by end users of the system has not increased greatly. Instead, total energy use (which includes the energy consumed as well as that used to generate energy – including that needed to burn fuel to create steam, lost in transmission or otherwise lost in generation) has more than tripled since the 1950s. In other words, it now takes more than double the amount of energy to generate what we consume. In other words, while buildings and appliances have become more efficient (and there is scope to make them even more efficient) we are actually using more energy to generate electricity and heat, primarily due to our move to huge central power plants.
As a country, we have moved away from heavy industry for a preference for the service and technology sectors (or what are popularly known as white-collar desk jobs). These desk jobs do not demand the type of energy that heavy industry does and more typically than not, follow the circadian clock. Therefore the lighting, heating and other electricity needs of these businesses could be well met by solar power. Some argue that solar power will never have the potential to fully meet a building’s energy use. However, buildings in Europe are being designed to perform at 50-55 kwh/m2a, about 1/3rd the level of the average US building. At such high efficiency levels, solar power can on its own deliver the heating, lighting and electricity needs of these buildings reliably. Depending on their building footprints, their rooftops should be able to accommodate much of the solar PV needs. There are inefficiencies related to the storage and conversion technologies for solar power. However, with continued investment and improvements in these two arenas, Solar Photovoltaic has the potential to outperform other technologies in emissions and lifecycle performance. Some argue that according to cost per unit energy delivered, solar still lags behind other energy sources. This argument is simplistic, since these discussions or data do not account for the billion-dollar subsidies that fossil fuel industries receive to offset their expenses, including research and development. Perhaps a diversion of these subsidies to solar research and development may expedite experimentation with new technologies or help enhance existing technologies. Solar power is not perfect; little is known of the impact of the reflection of the glare from the surface of solar panels. Also, concerns remain about the safety of their manufacturing and their safe disposal since the panels have mercury and lead. However, even with their carbon content (from being manufactured by fossil fuel plants) their toxic emissions are 300 times less than the typical coal burning plant.

The benefits of the other clean fuel, nuclear, such as the domestic availability of uranium and its clean emissions, are outweighed by the dangers surrounding the disposal of nuclear waste. Given the unprecedented increase in earthquakes across the globe, the decreasing availability of water that is necessary for nuclear power, and the absence of safe storage technologies, nuclear does not present a viable and safe alternative for the future. Would it really make sense to replace a 400-800 half-life material in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide) with nuclear radiation that has a half-life of 10,000 years? We simply cannot wish away these dangers.

Natural gas plants have increased in favor; yet it is a source that is only available in a limited amount domestically. The environmental impacts of the marine facilities from the import of natural gas, along with the potential damages caused during shipment of this fuel must be considered in planning for a natural gas based future.

For this country, a focused effort on energy efficiency, which in and of itself can set off billions of dollars of new technology development and services, is the easiest and most impactful investment that the government can make. Similarly, rebuilding and extending the national grid should be another focus of national policy. Lastly, allowing for distributed energy generation from renewable sources and coordinating the location of new industries with clean central power plants will secure this country’s economic future and maintain its leadership role in environmental stewardship and innovation.

So what is holding us back? For one, energy remains a very lucrative industry that the private sector would like to increasingly control. With empty coffers, the government is unable to construct, manage or maintain energy infrastructure – therefore it is reluctant to overly regulate the power industry. They would rather hand it over to the private sector than maintain their public ownership (for instance by creating new Public Utility Districts or Municipalities taking ownership). In the US, as a private business, the role of energy delivery as a public good is overshadowed by the legal necessity of generating shareholder profit. Therefore there are few incentives to promote conservation and invest in innovation since it could reduce revenue. Lastly, without a doubt, moving to a distributed energy system complicates the billing system, and raises issues of who takes responsibility for maintaining this distributed system.
In this new energy environment, utilities will have to address several important issues:
Who owns the grid and how does this owner recover costs to maintain and expand the grid? And, must each state and energy entity connect to the national grid?
Should energy utilities be for-profit entities? If so, how does it then address its impacts to the environment and who pays for these impacts? What financial tools can be put in place to fully protect the public’s interests in the energy delivery choices of private entities?
How can we decouple billing for capital costs and energy use to increase incentives for conservation and efficiency?
How can we plan for a gradual replacement of nuclear and coal technology with others that have better lifecycle performance?
How can we coordinate a revival of domestic energy policies through strategic national level energy investment? Even though science and financial analyses underscore our unsustainable energy policies, national level policies show no signs of change.
What will it take to stop the subsidies into carbon fuels and nuclear technology and move those to wind, solar and other renewable industries?

None of these are difficult questions or insurmountable problems. However, they will require a complete revision of our understanding and approach to energy; the role of utilities; and the responsibility of governments in energy delivery. Where can we find the leadership willing to engage and lead this discussion?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Geographic Information Systems Mapping for a Sustainable Future

Mapping is such an important yet overlooked exercise. With Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping has the power to share many stories. We have done some in-depth mapping for clients that have informed our Land Capacity Analyses for Comprehensive Plans. Gone are the days for approximating buildable lands. You can get acreage down to the last square yard if you need to. However, the quality of the mapping depends greatly on the quality of data available. It may be costly too. It may take up to 2-3 days just to set up the data to the format in which it makes sense. After that, depending on the speed of your computer system, it may take up 2-3 hours or more to generate and map a query – for instance, how much land is within 1500 feet of the mean high tide and what uses make up that land? It is evident that few have really explored the power of maps to influence good city planning and design. For sustainable planning, we need to make sure that we understand and map all the forces that make up the city’s environmental framework. This goes for activities above ground that have the potential to affect environmental performance – within city limits as well as from surrounding jurisdictions. If I was working in a city at the bottom of the hill, I would definitely want to map the permeability of development further uphill. Every time that land gets paved over, my jurisdiction will be affected. Similarly, I would want to know about functions that are underground. What is happening to the water table? What are the limits to my aquifer? How can I safely infiltrate water to recharge the aquifer at the same rate as consumption? Similarly, I would want to account for social disparities in my community. Is poverty concentrated in my community? Do my community’s investment choices correspond to the location of impoverished areas? Are they persistently deprived of investment? It is easy enough to map public infrastructure and investment to generate a map for social equity. Google Earth Outreach does just that and more. Several great resources for mapping are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and private companies like Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and Google Earth. Nonprofits like the World Resource Institute and the World Wildlife Fund and smaller ones such as the Nutty Birdwatcher, like many others, provide a wealth of information on the natural world, bird migration paths, compromised ecosystems and others. Information has become so sophisticated now that one can click on a parcel can provide you with all the layers of information attached to that parcel. Earlier the cost of servers to process this magnitude of data was exorbitant. Now with cloud computing, this cost can be lowered significantly. Many mapping departments across the country are feeling the brunt of diminishing public funds. However, for a sustainable future, mapping is a critical source for data, decision-making and equity. City, county and State governments have an opportunity to streamline and inform good decision-making by investing in their data and mapping capabilities, can you afford not to if you are seeking a sustainable future?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Planning for Resilient Communities, Japan Disaster and Recovery

The Japan tsunami is a horrific disaster reminiscent of so many similar events over the past year (remember Haiti, Chile, Christchurch 1, and 2?). It brings up many emotions such that it is hard to be objective about the event and ensuing disaster. Yet, how can one be critical of the population living in coastal areas when most land inhabited by human settlement is prone to some disaster or another on a periodic basis? It is a relief seeing the relatively minor damage in major cities such as Tokyo, though it is of little consolation when contrasted against the pictures of devastated smaller towns. One would like to think that Tokyo was safe more due to its updated building codes than its relative distance from the epicenter. Even within the Miyagi prefecture, though inundated by a muddy river of soil, seawater and debris, many buildings survived. Can building codes and engineering provide the solutions to withstanding natural disasters? Japan showed that in addition, early warning and emergency preparedness played a very important part in reducing the number of calamities caused by the event.
Emergency preparedness, though, is also tied to information. Critical information emerges if we mix environmental science with mathematical probability analysis. The map of the world that could emerge would rate each region by its susceptibility to disaster, perhaps by compiling the information collected by USGS in their 1-pager earthquake summary across geography and time. This susceptibility could be a measure of the frequency as well as the force of occurrence. Maybe then we can come up with sane development policies that first address areas that are most vulnerable, and gradually work their way down the list. Evacuating large populations from the most vulnerable areas could be the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps it should be the last resort – after shoring, engineering, and emergency preparedness have been fully explored. Is there much inhabitable land left in the world to accommodate such large forced migrations? More importantly, how would that be politically palatable? This recent article discusses how Japan became an expert in Disaster Preparation. There are some good resources that provide information on historic occurrences of disasters at a subcontinent level. The Annual Disaster Statistical Review released by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), is a great international overview of disasters. The International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) provides a searchable database of disasters by country. Good policy is driven by reliable and routinely updated data. While it is easy to approach emergency preparedness in a draconian manner and require either relocation of communities or the most stringent building codes, however in real life, codes for emergency preparedness (from tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanic inundation) must carefully balance affordability and life safety. If focused on life safety rather than reducing property damage, the development costs of stringent codes can be reduced while keeping casualties to the minimum. For a sustainable future, however, we must continuously seek to maximize existing infrastructure and communities and resist the urge to develop the last few remaining natural areas in the world. For a country as conscious about sustainability as Japan, it will be interesting to see how it changes its approach to development in these vulnerable communities to avoid a similar level of disaster in the future, or whether it even thinks that that would be a reasonable goal to strive for.