Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Tampa Resets on Sustainability at the Right Time

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Tampa, Florida, has long been involved with sustainability. I remember being part of the Going Green Tampa Bay group that sought to infuse sustainability in the city and on the campus of the University of South Florida back in the 90's. In addition, the city has long been a national leader on environmental equity--particularly around brownfield redevelopment. This year, the new mayor of the City, Jane Castor, announced a new initiative focused around sustainability and resiliency. Tampa is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. Large portions of the city, including downtown Tampa and the famous tourist Mecca of Ybor City, will be underwater unless we significantly reduce greenhouse gases.

What I find particularly hopeful about this move is that many cities have lost steam on their sustainability initiatives. They either have cut funding for them due to budget cuts, or the city's leadership moved on to other topics. This initiative shows that cities that have struggled with getting sustainability efforts off the ground can reset with new leadership and build a momentum for change.

As the article notes, there has been a lack of federal leadership on sustainability. In Florida, there has been a major lack of state leadership as well. Indeed, climate change work done by previous state leadership has largely been scrubbed from Websites. Cities in places like Florida are on their own and have to develop their own plans as to how to craft a response to the multiple environmental and sustainability crises they are facing. It is clear that the new Biden Administration will prioritize sustainability and climate change initiatives. Cities like Tampa are wise to begin work today so that they are ready to participate in national efforts when they are rolled out. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico. This is not one of the monuments that was under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

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Previous On the Brink posts on the U.S. National Monuments

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Cape Krusenstern National Monument
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Carrizo Plain National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Cascade Siskiyou National Monument
Castillo de San Marco National Monument
Castle Clinton National Monument
Castle Mountains National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument
César E. Chávez National Monument
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Chimney Rock National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument
Colorado National Monument
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Devils Postpile National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument
Effigy Mounds National Monument
El Malpais National Monument
El Morro National Monument
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Fort Frederica National Monument
Fort Matanzas National Monument
Fort McHenry National Monument
Fort Monroe National Monument
Fort Ord National Monument
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Fort Stanwix National Monument

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Top 5 Environmental News Stories of 2020

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Each year I post what I think are the top 5 environmental news stories of the past year. Last year, I noted that many of the top stories represented a quickening of the breakdown of environmental systems--especially those associated with climate change. This year is no different. However, this year, there seems to be a bit of hope as well. What do you think I missed on the list?

1. Evidence for major environmental change. From the fires on California to the unprecedented number of Atlantic tropical storms, the evidence for major environmental change is accelerating. All over the world, there are serious issues with major environmental systems--our oceans contain widespread dead zones and our coral reefs are dying; our tropical rainforests are being destroyed and air pollution is causing serious health issues. Things are getting worse fast.

2. Environmental impacts of the pandemic. The pandemic caused a massive increase in the use of disposable masks and gloves. While I want everyone to wear a mask and use gloves when appropriate, I am dismayed at the amount of litter that is now present around the world because of them. In addition, some grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags for fear of bringing the virus into stores. The only good news was the drop in carbon dioxide emissions due to the lack of commuting.

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3. US environmental policy under threat. For four years running, US environmental policy has been undercut by the very people put in place to manage it. Industry insiders were appointed to top positions as guardians of the environment and they did everything they could to roll back long-standing environmental policies and protections. The latest assault was the opening up of lots of federal lands-including the Arctic Wildlife Refuge--for mining and oil and gas production.

4. Investment goes green. This one is easy to overlook because it happened in January of 2020 before the pandemic hit. BlackRock, the world's largest investment firm, stated that they would no longer invest in organizations that had negative impacts on the environment--noting the importance of acting quickly on climate change. This statement rocked the business world and made clear that large energy companies were soon to go the way of the dinosaurs unless they diversified and quickly assisted with a transition to a green economy.

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5. Continued lack of global cooperation and leadership on major global environmental problems. There is a significant void in global leadership to advance an environmental agenda. Right now, the biggest global voice on the public stage is Greta Thunberg, but she is not in a position to create policy. Global leaders in Brazil, Australia, the US, and Russia are all actively working against strong environmental protection and have enacted policies that do great damage to our planet. While there is good work going on in international committees and conferences, they can only do so much in the absence of global cooperation. We are missing strong global leadership at this important moment in our planet's history. As I've noted on this blog, we are living in metamodern times where we like the "feels" of sustainability but act as if sustainability is not important. The same thing is happening in the political world.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sustainability Case Studies Chapter 16: Urban Vulnerability of Waste Workers in Nigerian Cities: The Case of Aba, Nigeria

Waste workers in Nigeria. 
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This is the 16th post in this blog series, Sustainability Case Studies, that is based on the book The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability: Case Studies and Practical Solutions edited by Robert Brinkmann (yours truly) and Sandra Garren and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Each post in the series will comment on the content of the chapter as well as some general take-aways or practical teaching or personal/organizational initiatives that could be gleaned from the chapter. Links to previous posts on the series (including the post that introduced the series) follow after the chapter review.

This chapter, Urban Vulnerability of Waste Workers in Nigerian Cities:  The Case of Aba, Nigeria, by Thaddeus Chidi Nzeabide and Friday Uchenna Ochege, is a fascinating look at informal waste workers in Africa. The authors take on an important topic--the informal waste trade--within the context of workers and their vulnerability. Waste management in Nigeria is underfunded in many areas and there is a robust economy associated with informal waste management. However, those who engage in the informal waste economy are among the most vulnerable members of Nigerian society. Assessing the vulnerability of these workers is the main focal point of the chapter.

The chapter begins with a review of the meaning of vulnerability, particularly in the context of the Nigerian informal waste trade. Those involved often have "...threats to well-being, snuggles and social-political contestations for rights garbage, tensions and competitions for survival, cultivation and maintenance of social networks, agency, and collective organizing..." There are a variety of threats to those involved with informal waste. For example, the waste itself is often dangerous. Plus there is a hefty competition among those involved with waste for access to garbage. Plus, governments often have a range of rules around the informal garbage trade and it is easy to run into regulatory problems.

The authors then review the setting for the case study in Aba, Nigeria. Aba is a city of over a million people that was a small town of 13,000 in 1931. Thus Aba is similar to some of the sunbelt cities in the U.S., in that it boomed in the 20th century. The growth in Aba was largely unplanned. As a result, there are often incompatible land uses adjacent to each other and there are a range of environmental and social problems present in the city--including a variety of issues associated with waste management.

The authors next provide a brief literature review around urban vulnerability in the informal waste trade. Many parts of the world, including Europe and the U.S., once had informal economies associated with waste. However, waste has become a highly organized part of what local governments do when they provide services to communities in most of the world. However, Africa remains one of the places where waste is still handled informally. In addition, workers in the waste business are not part of any organized planning or initiatives and are not part of any local or regional poverty reduction strategy. In addition, the informal waste economy is not taken into account in any measurable way when assessing local or regional economies. Thus, there is scant literature on who is involved, the economic impact, or the vulnerability of workers.

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The chapter then moves to a review of how a vulnerability index was constructed for waste workers in Aba. I will not go into all of the details on this as it is a complex undertaking. Suffice it to say that the authors use a range of variables to assess vulnerability in a variety of ways. What is particularly interesting in the chapter is that the authors developed a locational variable to assess vulnerability across the city. Those that are most vulnerable tend to work independently. The least vulnerable work at major dump sites and thus have means of mutual support. The chapter concludes by discussing that interventions around social innovation could assist the most vulnerable.

Here are some discussion questions when using this chapter for a unit on waste, informal waste management, or waste in Africa.

1. Where is Aba, Nigeria? Describe its population growth.

2. What is informal waste management and how does it compare with waste management in your community?

3. What is vulnerability? Why are waste workers in Aba a good focus for looking at worker vulnerability?

4. What variables were used in the binary-composite vulnerability index of Aba waste pickers?

5. How does location of waste work contribute to vulnerability?

6. What is social innovation and how can it be applied to waste workers in Aba?

7. How does this study intersect Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 11?

8. How would you assess the vulnerability of waste workers in your community?

Previous posts in this series:

Saturday, December 19, 2020

2021 Sustainability Predictions

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Each year in this space, I get out the metaphoric patchouli and tarot cards, throw the crystals, and become a swami of sustainability to come up with 10 sustainability predictions for the coming year. There is no doubt that 2020 was a landmark in the history of the world and in the sustainability realm. So what does 2021 have in store for us? Here are my predictions.

1. US gets serious on climate. With the election of Joe Biden, the US will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and confront four years of backsliding on a range of climate policies.

2. The world confronts consumerism during the pandemic. Over the pandemic, there were big economic losers (local restaurants and small businesses in particular) and big economic winners. Some of the biggest winners were large on-line companies like Amazon. We have shifted huge amounts of money to large companies from mid-sized and small companies. In the coming year, as we come out of pandemic conditions, we will confront what happened to small businesses and try to right the ship. This examination will look at economic equity and environmental consequences of the pandemic economy. It will also drive us to more systematically confront consumerism and the impacts of our spending on the environment and global culture.

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3. Environmental equity takes center stage. The appointment of New Mexico Representative Haaland as the head of the Department of Interior in the United States signals that the Biden administration will be taking environmental equity seriously. Haaland will be the first Native American to serve in a cabinet role in the US government. Around the world, environmental equity issues will continue to get significant attention--particularly around indigenous rights in South America and Australia and environmental justice issues in the U.S.

4. Green transportation infrastructure blossoms around the world. One of the things that has held back the growth of electric cars is the lack of green infrastructure--particularly access to charging stations. Expect to see significant improvements in the coming year. In addition, there will be greater attention to bike infrastructure, pedestrian access, and rethinking roadways in a time when more people are working from home and reducing car use.

5. Concerns over office infrastructure as people return to the workplace. The coming year will bring people back to the office and workers will have concerns over basic infrastructure like water supply, coffee makers, and air handlers that have been relatively stagnant for the last year. 

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6. Industrial agriculture advances sustainability initiatives. Major agricultural companies have moved forward on a range of sustainability initiatives over the last decade. However, look to them becoming much more serious on a range of issues such as organic food, nutrient pollution, and pesticide and herbicide use. In addition, look for large animal processing sites to focus much more on worker rights after the despicable news of managers betting on which of their workers will get COVID.

7. More energy companies embrace renewables. With the cost of renewable energy declining significantly, more energy companies are diversifying their portfolios and moving away from oil. Expect this trend to continue.

8. Suburbs and peri urban areas become centers of sustainability research. For years I have been saying that urban sustainability is easy and that the hard work is in the suburbs. I predict that the coming year will bring much greater focus to the suburbs and peri urban areas.

9. Organizations look to work from home strategies as a component of greenhouse gas reductions. As we all shifted our worksites from our offices to our homes, organizations discovered that large components of their operations could continue this way into the future thereby reducing the need for physical space. This shift cuts energy costs from transportation and building use and more organizations will look at work from home as a key strategy in greenhouse gas reduction.

10. Ecosystem shifts become more apparent due to climate change. While we have already seen some clear ecosystem shifts in places like the Arctic where the climate has changed most rapidly, expect to see more local evidence of ecosystem shifts throughout our world as climate change continues to impact us.

If you have any predictions you think I missed, leave them in the comments.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

How the US Gets to Net Zero Carbon

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The New York Times printed an interesting piece yesterday by Brad Plumer on how the U.S. can get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The article is worth a read, although there are not too many surprises in the piece for those of you who have been paying attention to climate change policy in the United States. The main way we get to zero is by rapidly ramping up renewable energy like solar and wind, advancing electric car technology and infrastructure, and by transforming home heating. The article has lots of other details that provide other ideas such as agricultural transformation and carbon capture. As many people have pointed out, the green energy transformation can create lots of new jobs and help create a much greener economy than we have today.

The most interesting item in the article is that this transformation can lead to greater land use conflicts. For example, we need to use large swaths of land for windmills and solar arrays if we are going to get to net zero. This most certainly will create local public debates--particularly in peri-urban environments close to cities. However, there are great economic opportunities for small towns and rural areas to take advantage of the drive to green energy. In the same way small communities have have welcomed privatized prisons in order to provide local economic development, the same communities can welcome the development of green energy infrastructure.

There is no doubt that with the change of leadership in Washington that climate change will be at the top of the agenda in most cabinet offices. There are great opportunities for expanding the nation's green infrastructure in partnership with suburbs, small towns, and rural regions. Communities that are already working on sustainability initiatives will have the expertise in place to be leaders in America's zero carbon transformation.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

70% of Diary Industry Committed to Carbon Neutrality

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Agrinews reported last week that the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management developed new sustainability goals as part of its U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment. The new goals state that the dairy industry will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and that they will also be better stewards of water resources and cut nutrient pollution from manure. What is important about this initiative is that the Innovation Center has the commitment of 70% of the dairy industry on these goals. This commitment represents the about 29% of US dairy companies.

The commitment is worth a read. It is a comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes environmental factors like energy, climate change, and water; equity and economic factors like decent work and access to food; and community factors like stakeholder engagement and partnerships. The commitment is a great example of how different areas of the economy are leading the way on sustainability absence the leadership of federal or state guidance. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Was I a Sustainability Psychic in 2020? I review my predictions.

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Each year about this time, I make predictions about sustainability for the coming year (look for that post soon). I thought it would be a good idea to check in to see how I did over the last year. Below are the predictions I made on December 19, 2020 followed by some comments. What do you think? Was I a sustainability psychic this year?

1. Climate change begins to hit the coastal real estate market. I give this prediction an A. There was a ton of news about real estate markets starting to get hit by climate change concerns including this article from the New York Times in October about the Florida real estate market.

2. Climate change denial becomes political poison. I give this prediction an A as well. Even the 2020 presidential debates included climate change questions. Those who deny the reality of climate change seem deeply out of touch at this moment.

3. Elections have consequences. I noted that there was a likelihood of a switch in the presidency, which turned out to be true, and that there would be reversals of the reversals of the executive decisions regarding environmental issues. As this article points out, the Biden administration will be much more assertive on climate change and other issues. Thus, I give myself an A on this prediction.

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4. Big wins on plastic.
 I predicted that there would be big wins on more plastic bans in a variety of products. I give this one a C. While there have been major wins in banning plastic from a variety of products all over the world (including a recent ban of plastic straws in Montgomery County, Maryland), the reality is that plastic use went way up during the pandemic as people took more food out from restaurants.

5. Environmental justice becomes a bigger global issue. I give this prediction an A. There was a great deal of attention internationally on environmental justice issues--particularly regarding indigenous rights in Latin America. In addition, the murder of George Floyd galvanized environmental justice activists in the United States and caused the Sierra Club to look at the racism of its founder, John Muir.

6. Global businesses take on more sustainability responsibility. I give this prediction an A+. Just a few short weeks after I made this prediction, the largest investment firm in the world, BlackRock, declared they would no longer invest in organizations that did damage to the planet. This is but one of many emerging initiatives within the global business community who at this moment in time are taking on more sustainability responsibility than many national governments.

7. Climate strikes expand. I give this one a B-. Climate strikes certainly continued, but the global pandemic moved them online where they did not seem to have the full impact of the strikes of the past.

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8. Concerns over population.
 I give this one a B. Some countries, like Egypt, have embraced plans to try to deal with overpopulation. However, the conversation among many falls along the line of, "how can we find ways to feed a growing population", instead of "how can we find ways to reduce the birth rate to lower global population."

9. Nutrient pollution is a greater concern. I give this one an A. All over the world, coastal waters and inland surface waters are impaired by nutrient pollution. In some cases, dead zones form where eutrophication suffocates fish. While you might have missed the news amidst all of the pandemic and election drama, major dead zones formed all over the world, including in the Gulf of Mexico which is prompting policy makers to double their efforts at reducing nutrient pollution.

10. Growing interest in sustainable living. I give this one an A as well. There is no doubt that people are rethinking their lifestyles in the midst of the pandemic. We rely less on cars, find ways to work remotely, and are learning how to be much more self sufficient. We have a whole new generation that is interested in living much more simply.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Building Bike-Friendly Infstrasture in the Suburbs

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I ran into an interesting blog post on the blog, Beyond the Automobile, written by Matt Pinder, a Senior Designer with Alta Planning and Design. The post, titled, The Dutch Bike in the Burbs Too, was published a couple of years ago, but it is very pertinent for those of us who think about suburban sustainability.

Suburban regions around the world are struggling with how they can advance a sustainability agenda. For example, many of them are working on projects like downtown redevelopment projects to create a mix of housing options for people in central commercial cores of the communities to improve densification. Others are working on projects like Green Streets initiatives or green economic development initiatives. Pinder's post highlights how suburban communities can better design spaces for bikes.

Obviously American suburbs, and many suburbs around the world are built around cars and commuting. However, as the work force has changed with COVID, and will likely to stay, at least partially, transformed, there will be less of a need for regular commuting and more people will be staying closer to home. Thus, the suburbs will have less of a need for car infrastructure in the coming years and people will be much more interested in livability and walking and biking options--particularly as we start to see more of the impacts of climate change and populations get more engaged in climate change issues.

Pinder points out that there are design choices that the suburbs can make to reduce the impact of cars on the community. Simple things like bike lanes, bike racks, and parking lot design help to create a safe and welcoming environment that makes biking a sound transportation option in the suburbs.