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Archive for June, 2011

I recently read an article (this is how most of these blog posts begin whether implicitly stated or not…) from the New York Times about how many European cities are discouraging vehicle traffic. Essentially, they are working to “annoy” drivers enough that they just give up their cars altogether in favor of other options like public transportation, bike riding or walking. Speed limits have been reduced, entire blocks have been closed to vehicle traffic, and pedestrians have been given power over traffic signals and flow. These steps, combined with extremely high gasoline prices (about $8/gallon) throughout Europe have been enough to increase the number of carless households. In Zurich, for example, the number of carless households has increased by 5% over the past decade. It is hoped that these anti-vehicle practices will bring the European Union closer to meeting its Kyoto emissions targets and will naturally improve air quality standards within crowded cities.

All of this got me thinking. Particularly about the United States and how, in most cases, the transportation goal continues to be focused on making driving more convenient. Enormous highways, parking garages, pedestrian foot bridges, etc. all make it easier for vehicles to enter already crowded cities where traffic congestion, poor air quality and high levels of emissions are prevalent. Realistically, though, we are dealing with some pretty serious obstacles:

1. Urban Sprawl: Urban sprawl, as defined by our trusty Wikipedia sources is: “a multifaceted concept, which includes the spreading outwards of a city and its suburbs to its outskirts to low-density and auto-dependent development on rural land, high segregation of uses (e.g. stores and residential), and various design features that encourage car dependency.”

A 2010 Gallup Healthways poll found that the average American spends 46 minutes commuting to work each day. More and more of us are located further and further away from commercial centers where work, shopping, schooling, etc. happens.  I fear that this is something inherent to our fabric as Americans – the vast open spaces of our country and our desire to “get away” from the hustle and bustle make us apt to welcome the sprawl. Additionally, the planning that goes in to urban (and suburban) development is not something that is easily changed, and is a requirement if we are to move away from auto-dependency.

2. Public Transportation: It’s no secret that most of the public transportation available here in the States leaves something to be desired. Our national train service, now maintained by Amtrak, has seen vast reductions in ridership since the 1960s when air travel became more prevalent. Today, service is fairly limited, rates are relatively high, and travel times seem inordinately long.

Bigger cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle have mass transit options that have, happily, experienced increased ridership over the past years.  Ultimately, though, the range, reliability and schedules of these options are not where they could be. In smaller cities, the options remain limited to buses and cabs. Biking and walking are naturally options as well, but the infrastructure (bike lanes, crossings, bike stands, etc…) can make it dangerous and/or inconvenient.

How do you get to work? Do you have the option to leave your car at home? Do you own a car? How would you react if suddenly driving became more “annoying”?

 

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In the spirit of engaging in (what at this time, at least) is somewhat lighter fare, pun intended, I thought I would delve into the world of artificial meats. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of such a thing? Well, fear not, friends. In an effort to develop a solution to the mounting problems of food costs, carbon emissions and ethical concerns regarding animal treatment, scientists have been experimenting with the creation of artificial meat products.

Now, as a vegetarian, I have experienced my fair share of faux meat products (veggie dogs covered in veggie bacon? bring it on!).  While there are some fairly good substitutes for the real thing, I tend to stay away from the stuff merely because of the oodles of processing and ingredients involved.  Still, what American in her right mind can persist the smells of a bbq without rushing, veggie burger in hand, to the coals?

Regardless, for some reason, the idea of a faux meat product that is made to emulate, nearly identically, the make up of the cow or pig or chicken that it would normally come from scares me a bit. And, have you heard about this?

I definitely agree that something needs to be done about our current food constraints. But, what do you think? To eat, or not to eat artificial meat? That, is quite the question.

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UN Climate talks conclude today after two weeks of discussions in Bonn, Germany.  Among the issues being discussed, the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (set to expire in 2012) is perhaps the most visible and derisive. Amidst scientific confirmation that developing countries have met their targets and obligations under the protocol, the industrialized nations (who, by comparison to developing nations, have been laggard in their Kyoto obligations) seem to be dragging their feet. Canada, Japan and Russia have already expressed that they will not support extended climate emissions controls; the European Union is holding out until the United States, India and China agree to support an extension.

The reality is dire for Kyoto. Even if the protocol was to be extended (highly unlikely without at least the support of the EU), the legislative process would most likely inhibit the passage of an extension prior to the current protocol’s expiration. While the protocol itself is not the only option for addressing global climate change, it is distressing to witness the pleading of developing nations for continued emissions control efforts and the concomitant lethargy on the part of large, industrialized nations.

Last year, carbon emissions levels rose at the fastest rate ever in the past four decades; double the annual rate of emissions increases during the last ten years. Clearly, something needs to be done.

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The Guardian is a large and well-reputed British newspaper that has become intimately involved in reporting on sustainability-related news and events. In the United Kingdom, as in most of Europe, political-, security- and economic-based concerns have led to a greater focus on sustainability within business and politics than here in the United States.  While there is a long way to go for all of us, much can be learned from the strides being taken in Europe towards a more sustainable future. The diversity of viewpoints, experiences and legislative actions originating from the United Kingdom all serve to inform the greater body of sustainable research, thinking and practice.  In this vein, and with business operations in mind, The Guardian has expanded its information services to include Guardian Sustainable Business Intelligence. We are proud to say that our Sustainability Watch reports make up some of the content provided and know that this unique resource will help to proliferate sustainable thinking and safeguard a future we can all be proud of.

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Oxfam, the United Nations, The World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization (among other organizations) are growing increasingly concerned and vocal about the potential for severe decreases in global food supply and concomitant increases in global food cost. At a time when rising costs of food commodities, like the recent 71% spike in the average global cereal prices, have already caused rioting and hunger in the most vulnerable nations, the situation does not look promising.

The rising volatility within the commodities market is tied closely to natural events such as droughts in Europe, and tornadoes and flooding in the United States, which have drastically reduced food supply. These events, coupled with ever-increasing global populations and growing demands for Western-style diet (rich of meat and dairy products), have caused and will continue to cause serious food inflation.

In addition to these more organic events, it is worth noting that ever-growing speculation in commodities markets  also has a role in global food price increases.  Since 2001, the amount of money being invested in commodities has increased by 40 times. Investors, attracted to the growing demand for food commodities from countries like India and China, have placed additional upward pressure on food prices through their speculation.

The results, especially for developing nations, are devastating. In some nations, it is not irregular for individuals to spend more than half of their income on food staples such as rice and milk. In these places, food must be rationed and nutrition is inevitably compromised.

The agricultural ministers of the G20 will be meeting in mid-June to discuss, among other things, food security. It is expected that  greater transparency regarding food commodity stock-piles and futures and derivatives markets as well as the creation of regional food reserves will be among the solutions suggested for tackling this developing global problem.

 

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