Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Once and Future Kennedy

The whole world is watching. Since President-Elect Obama’s victory on November 4th, there has been much debate about how the 44th president of the United States will live up to his many election promises. While his inauguration won’t take place until January 20, 2009, the pundits are already trying to figure out whom Obama will choose to serve in his cabinet.

High among the list of potentials is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – a seasoned environmental lawyer and advocate who carries the legacy of his uncle, President John Kennedy, and his father, Senator Bobby Kennedy. Despite his remarkable family pedigree and considerable personal accomplishments, it’s Kennedy passion for the health of his children and for the health of this planet that are his greatest strengths.

I had the opportunity to hear Kennedy at the Sustainable Operations Summit in Vancouver a few days before the U.S. election. He challenged the public to question the implied position of the energy industry that economic and environmental policies are mutually exclusive.

”The environment and the economy are intertwined,” said Kennedy. “Nature is the infrastructure of our community. We need to protect this infrastructure, which is the common wealth of our community, so that our children have the same opportunities that we had.”

“If we can resolve those issues, then everything else will fall into place,” he said. “We are not protecting the environment for the sake of the fishes. We are protecting it for us. The economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

Contrary to what the oil industry would have everyone believe, reducing carbon emissions would not kill the already faltering U.S. economy. Kennedy cited U.S. public opinion during the debate over the abolition of slavery, when 25 percent of the energy used by industry was provided by slave labor.

”Rather than collapsing the US economy, abolition forced the economy to move much more quickly,” said Kennedy. “The fear was that the economy would crater. Instead it exploded exponentially during a period we now call the industrial revolution.”

Kennedy sees the U.S. addiction to carbon fuels as a principle drag on the economy. “We are borrowing a billion dollars a day to feed the addiction to foreign oil from countries that are hostile. We are hemorrhaging our wealth.” In addition, the U.S. is providing $ 1.5 trillion in subsidies to the oil industry, money that could be much better spent developing local, sustainable energy.

Kennedy cited several examples of nations that have decarbonized their economies with tremendous success. In 1970, Iceland was the poorest country in Europe, importing 100 percent of its energy in the form of coal and oil. The government decided to shift to harvesting local geothermal energy. It took just 15 years to become 4th richest country in Europe (by GDP) with 90 percent of its energy coming from geothermal. Sweden decided to not only decarbonize, but also to phase out nuclear power in 1996. Harvesting wind, tidal, geothermal and waste energy has made Sweden the 6th richest country in Europe (by GDP) according to Kennedy.

Brazil, once a “have not” country, now exports its energy surpluses because it switched from oil to renewable ethanol derived from biomass left over from harvesting sugar cane.

Kennedy dismissed the argument that solar and other renewable power sources can be very harmful to the environment.

“The environmental damage caused by building solar farms is a fraction of the damage done every year by coal farming in the Appalachians,” said Kennedy.

The only barrier to creating a sustainable energy economy is subsidies to the incumbents.

“We need to create a marketplace where people can sell their energy back to the grid,” said Kennedy. “We need an economy based on American ingenuity rather than Saudi oil.”

Kennedy pointed to his own experience. Four years ago he was spending $ 2200 a year to fuel his mini-van. Today his Prius costs about $ 1000.

“That’s $ 1200 a year in my pocket,” he said. “What would it do to the US economy if everybody had an extra $ 1200 to spend on other things? Good environmental policy is the same as good economic policy. It creates good jobs and preserves the assets of the community.” In addition, Kennedy estimates the U.S. could save $ 600 billion a year in avoided costs because of reduced air pollution.

“Am I going to watch my children gasping for air because some lobbyist gave money to the US government?” he said. “This is not just about the destruction of the environment. This is about the subversion of American society.”

Kennedy concluded by citing our moral responsibility to future generations.

“We are part of the continuum, part of something bigger than ourselves. Our environment connects us to the 10,000 generations who were here before laptops,” he said. “We can do well by doing good.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Better Place

"Detroit is dead."

These prophetic words by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. were spoken only days before General Motors and Ford both announced huge quarterly losses. Kennedy was speaking to a group of public sector and industry leaders at the Sustainable Operations Summit in Vancouver. He continued, "These companies will be bankrupt unless they go electric."

With all three major Detroit car manufacturers teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, Kennedy's comments could be construed as a hopeless statement of the inevitable. But they aren't.

Kennedy's words offer hope, not only for the auto sector, but for the planet. Kennedy spoke of a Better Place – and the possibility of a world where the air is clean and cars literally run on sunshine.

Better Place is in fact a company that is transforming countries with its innovative approach to transportation and energy. Better Place is founded on four basic pillars – a world living free from oil, a planet healing and thriving, and an environment and economy brought back in balance with each other.

Founded in October 2007 by Shai Agassi with $ 200 million of venture capital, Better Place is already well on its way to creating a sustainable transportation grid for the entire country of Israel. With all of its major urban centers less than 150 kilometers apart and the average car owner traveling less than 70 km. per day, Israel is ideally suited for electric cars. If all goes according to plan, every gas-guzzling car in the country will be replaced by an electric vehicle within three years.

The idea is simple, elegant and completely doable. As Kennedy described, Israel is currently being rewired. Every parking space is being equipped with an electrical outlet for quick recharges, ensuring that car batteries will always have at least 160 km. of driving capacity.

For longer trips, automated battery switching stations, much like our existing gas stations, are being constructed. Depleted batteries will be replaced in less time that it takes to fill up a fuel tank without anyone ever having to leave the vehicle.

"These electric cars which can go 0 to 60 in five seconds will be given away for free," said Kennedy. "The cost of driving them will be 6 cents a mile, versus 60 cents a mile." (Israeli gas prices, which are the third highest in the world, recently topped $ 2.20 Canadian per liter in August.)

Users will pay for distance traveled as well as a system access fee, similar to the cell phone business model.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance has partnered with Better Place to build the zero-emission cars, with the first prototype debuting in Israel in January of this year. To provide the electricity for the estimated 750,000 cars that will eventually replace Israel's existing gasoline powered vehicles, huge investments have been made in solar and wind farms.

The true genius of the Better Place grid is that the car batteries provide an excellent place to store electricity. This can address current limitations of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which are unable to provide power in the steady and continuous manner of a non-renewable facility.

Because the electricity is stored in 750,000 separate locations, the Better Place network offers a more stable grid that won't be subject to the problems often associated with large, centralized generation such as nuclear shutdowns. This decentralization also makes it less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The Better Place plan will also eliminate the need for peak power production. It's this peak power production, which is provided by coal, oil and other fossil fuel generation, that is the major source of greenhouse gases. Cars that have been recharged throughout the day will be able to discharge their stored up energy back to the grid when it is needed.

This will also eliminate the need for foreign oil - an issue of national security for Israel.

As the Better Place website explains, "When the sun goes down or the wind fades, they can't contribute power to the grid. And when they are pumping out the kilowatts, it doesn't always coincide with peak demand. Industrially generated electricity is tremendously expensive and difficult to store, so this green energy ends up going unused. But the Better Place grid is an industrial customer that is in constant need of electricity. Once in place, green power will never go to waste. There will always be a vehicle that can use it."

In addition to Israel, Denmark and Australia are also partnering with Better Place to create oil-free renewable energy/transportation networks.

Next week's column will look at Robert Kennedy Jr.'s vision for a new America.


Check out www.betterplace.com.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Shop for a Cause

Christmas is still several weeks away, but given the current economic uncertainty, retailers are already predicting a downturn in holiday spending this year.

“Current financial pressures and a lack of confidence in the economy will force shoppers to be very conservative with their holiday spending,” said Rosalind Wells, Chief Economist with the US National Retail Federation. “We expect consumers to be frugal this season and less willing to splurge on discretionary items.”

The outlook for Canadian retailers isn’t much better. This is particularly true in Ontario where massive losses in the manufacturing sector mean that many families will be facing a rather bleak Christmas. Factor in the rising cost of fuel, food and other staple items, and it seems that consumers will be making their lists and checking them more than twice before opening their wallets this holiday season.

If the Thanksgiving food drive is any indicator, charities will likely suffer, too. With less disposable income, most families reduce their charitable donations and focus instead on providing for their immediate loved ones.

But what are we providing? According to the Planet Friendly website, “Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace and togetherness. But all too often, greed, haste and superficiality are the hallmarks of the season.”

As a consequence we often look for the cheapest price, without considering if the items that we purchase have been made by sweatshop labor, or by a company that has no regard for the environment. As a result, worker are often paid slave wages and exposed to harmful chemicals and dangerous working conditions all so that we can take advantage of lower prices.

This isn’t just about what we can or cannot afford. It’s about fairness. The United Nations reports that a mere 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 86 percent of the world’s resources. And since everyone who is reading this is part of that 20 percent, we have more than our credit card balance to consider.

I’m not suggesting that we completely abandon Christmas altogether. The solution is reasonable and responsible gift purchases that give many times over. How we spend our holiday cash can actually benefit worthwhile agencies that are trying to protect the Earth and her children while promoting a more equitable economic balance for everyone.

According to the Planet Friendly website, “There are plenty of gifts that do all of the above. The good news is that there are better alternatives, for those who look. Gifts that go deeper than the shiny paper wrapping. Gifts that respect our neighbors, near and far. And alternatives to gift-giving that can build friendships, community and well-being.”

One of my favorite examples of this is UNICEF. Christmas is supposed to be for the children, and yet every day 30,000 children die from preventable diseases and starvation. For more than 50 years, UNICEF has been helping children in more than 160 countries through its greeting card program. As an added bonus, UNICEF cards and envelopes are printed on recycled paper. UNICEF also has some unusual gifts to offer.

For the person on your list who really doesn’t need anything, honor them by purchasing a UNICEF Gifts of Magic and help to transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children by providing fresh water, vaccinations, mosquito nets and other items.

Another option is buying from companies that promote fair trade. This means that profits from goods that are produced in the developing world are channeled back into the communities where they are made. Notably companies include Bridgehead and Ten Thousand Villages.

Closer to home, Planet Friendly offers a list of suggestions and sources for gifts that promote the spirit of the season. With a little careful planning and some thoughtful ideas, we can all have a great Christmas and do our part to help protect the Earth.


For a list of greener, healthier gifts for the whole year, check out Planet Friendly

UNICEF. If you prefer to order by phone, call 1-800-567-4483.

Ten Thousand Villages has a variety of wonderful fair trade, organic edibles including various chocolates, oils, teas and coffees. Ten Thousand Villages also has a wide range of beautifully handcrafted gift items such as jewelry, personal accessories and other items perfect for Christmas giving.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

One Million Acts of Green

It’s a single idea, really. One million acts of green, done one act at a time. On Tuesday, October 21, at 10:00 am, ET, George Stroumboulopoulos, host of CBC’s The Hour, launched the One Million Acts of Green (OMAG) initiative.

Using an interactive website, www.onemillionactsofgreen.com, the idea is to tally one million Acts of Green that represent individual changes in everyday habits. Dr. David Suzuki, arguably one of Canada’s greenest citizens, joined Stroumboulopoulos for the launch and made his own pledge.

“Every day I will pick up a piece of garbage somewhere during the day and put it in the proper place,” said Dr. Suzuki.

During the show Canadian pop icon Alanis Morissette promised to get serious about composting. “I know how to do it,” she said, “it’s just a case of doing it!”

An introductory video on the OMAG website adds more Canadian stars to the list of Canadians prepared to pledge the own Acts of Green.

“I drive a fuel efficient car but I prefer to walk,” said Little Mosque on the Prairie star Zaib Shaikh.

Fellow cast member Carol Rota has his own Act of Green. “I do not drink out of plastic bottles anymore,” he said.

The key is to encourage everyone to re-visit their everyday habits and make a pledge to change them. While Stroumboulopoulos admitted that none of these acts could make much of a difference by itself, when you add up a million of them, real change seems possible.

He might just be on to something. By November 1st, over 168,000 Acts of Green had already been tallied, saving more than 10 million kilograms of greenhouse gases in the process.

The most difficult part of joining is learning how to navigate the website. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out that I had to create my own profile before I could start logging Acts of Green, but once I got the hang of it navigation was a lot easier.

Acts are listed by category (transportation, home – easy and big, community and everyday habits), and within in each category there is a list of specific activities that can be added to the total Acts of Green.

For example, easy home projects are focused on energy and water conservation and include things like installing a programmable thermostat, using motion sensors on outdoor lights, installing low-flow showerheads and tap aerators as well as fixing leaky faucets. More difficult and/or costly projects include replacing old appliances with ENERGY STAR models, insulating your basement and attic, and installing PV solar cells or wind turbines.

Community projects include signing your friends up for One Million Acts Of Green, starting or joining a community group, and writing a politician (one can only assume about making environmental change for the better).

Under the transportation category, acts include walking or biking to work, taking public transit, “Send Your Old Car To Car Heaven” and checking your tire inflation.

Within each Act of Green there is a tally of total participants and total of greenhouse gases reduced. Each Act also offers Fast Facts and links related to the Act of Green. For example, under “Send Your Old Car To Car Heaven”, there is an explanation of the tax benefits of scraping your old car, and a link to Car Heaven, an initiative of the Clean Air Foundation that provides tax-receipts and other incentives to get older, heavily polluting cars permanently off the road. As of this writing, 440 participants have agreed to retire their old cars, for a total greenhouse gas reduction of 740,000 kilograms.

You can also check your own personal tally. I managed to tally 27 Acts of Green and 4,654 kilograms of reduced greenhouse gases in just a few minutes and that was only entering home projects and transportation.

The beauty of the website is that you can immediate see the benefit of your actions. In the face of so much discouraging news about the environment, One Million Acts Green really makes you believe that together we can really make a difference.



If your car is a 1995 model or older, if might just be time to send it to Car Heaven. Check out www.carheaven.ca.