Sustainablog

This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.

11.12.08

Nobel Physicist Chosen To Be US Energy Secretary: The appointments suggest that Obama plans to make a strong push for measures to combat global warming and programs to support energy innovation


Nobel Physicist Chosen To Be Energy Secretary
Browner, Two Others to Get Climate Posts

By Steven Mufson and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 11, 2008; A01

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be the next energy secretary, and he has picked veteran regulators from diverse backgrounds to fill three other key jobs on his environmental and climate-change team, Democratic sources said yesterday.

Obama plans to name Carol M. BrownerEnvironmental Protection Agency administrator for eight years under President Bill Clinton, to fill a new White House post overseeing energy, environmental and climate policies, the sources said. Browner, a member of Obama's transition team, is a principal at the Albright Group.

Obama has also settled on Lisa P. Jackson, recently appointed chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) and former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to head the EPA. Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The appointments suggest that Obama plans to make a strong push for measures to combat global warming and programs to support energy innovation. "I think it's a great team," said Daniel A. Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "On policy, it's a dramatic contrast based on what I know about the policy direction that all these folks will be bringing to these positions."

Obama has not yet settled on his choice to head the Interior Department, another key environmental post, and sources close to the transition indicated that several candidates remain under consideration. Barring any last-minute glitches, Obama plans to announce the appointments next week.

Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for his work in the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light." But, in an interview last year with The Washington Post, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. "I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed," he said. "Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation."

He sought and won the top job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, leaving the Stanford University faculty to focus on energy issues. Chu was in London last night and unavailable for comment, but the physicist has been, in the words of his Web site, on a "mission" to make the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory "the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy."

The national laboratories fall under the Energy Department, whose budget is devoted largely to dealing with nuclear waste and materials from deactivated nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines and other reactors. But the department is also the conduit for funds that go to innovative energy technologies, including those designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

Browner, a lawyer and native of Florida, was legislative director for then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and later head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under then-Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). As the top administrator at the EPA under Clinton, she pushed for tough air-pollution standards that the agency defended against industry lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court, where the EPA prevailed. In her new role, Browner will need her legislative and administrative experience in a job that will cover everything from climate change to energy policy.

The Obama administration faces an unusually big agenda in this area. The president-elect is expected to tackle cap-and-trade legislation that would put a lid on and then lower greenhouse gas emissions. European governments are expecting him to do that before a crucial climate-change summit a year from now. Meanwhile, energy industries and environmental groups are lobbying on issues such as offshore drilling restrictions, permits for coal plant construction and expansion, nuclear reactor permits and loan guarantees, and tax breaks for renewable energy.

In addition, the new administration has to figure out how to wield the power given to the EPA last year by a Supreme Court ruling that said carbon dioxide emissions should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. How the EPA uses that power could determine the fate of all sorts of energy-intensive projects. Yesterday, the EPA said it would not finalize rules on new electricity-generating units, disappointing industry lobbyists and punting the issue to the Obama administration.

An African American native of New Orleans, Jackson grew up in the Ninth Ward, the poor and largely black neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jackson's mother, stepfather and godmother fled the city as the 2005 storm approached. A few months later, in her swearing-in speech as New Jersey's environmental chief, Jackson said the devastation wrought by Katrina put her environmental work in a new perspective.

"My family escaped with their lives, but everything else -- their homes and possessions, even the family Bible -- was lost," Jackson said. "We were among the lucky ones."

"The shameful failures of government that the world witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have given me a special appreciation for the importance of public service," Jackson added. "Those failures have galvanized my commitment to working tirelessly to protect the health and safety of the people of New Jersey and to enhancing our quality of life."

Environmentalists in New Jersey describe Jackson as a pragmatic but consistent ally who has pushed Corzine to adopt a greener stance during his time in office. In the summer of 2007, Corzine signed the Global Warming Response Act, an ambitious climate measure that pledges to cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

"Lisa Jackson played a very large role ensuring passage of that legislation, and helping ensure it was a priority of Governor Corzine," said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. "She's capable of making the case . . . that deep reductions are possible."

Democrats familiar with the incoming administration's thinking say Jackson's administrative skills were considered important for an agency they see as in "disarray" because of the Bush administration's record on environmental issues. Before moving to New Jersey, Jackson worked for the EPA in Washington.

Sutley, who has a long record on environmental and natural resources policy, will head a group that has a very limited regulatory role and a small staff. But from its offices on Lafayette Square near the White House, Sutley could be a player in shaping the new administration's policies on climate change and the environment.

Sutley, a top aide to Browner at the EPA dealing with air-pollution issues, supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. She previously served in California as an energy adviser to then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) and as a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, where she was responsible for protecting water quality and resources throughout the nation's most populous state.

Sutley, whose mother is from Argentina, identifies herself as a Latina. She was a member of the California Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender steering committee of Clinton's campaign and is the first openly gay nominee for a top job in the Obama administration.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

10.12.08

McKinsey on helping Green products grow (October 2008)


Thanks to Daniel Aronson... JFB


In addition to the main thrust of the article, I find it a good illustration of the green movement's challenge that people were far off in their beliefs about what they can do (especially with respect to numbers 2 and 3).




IDC: continued support for sustainability intiatives despite current economic challenges


Thanks to Charles Jenkins, and apologies for duplicates




Press release out from IDC today says sustainability work is still a priority, and people are looking to software and services companies to help them.  Nice to see IDC taking individual reports and combining the results across industries to provide a wider view.

Results of the survey also found:

  • 47% will buy new applications to implement green initiatives
  • 39% will contract with external consulting organizations to assist in implementation
According to Jill Feblowitz, practice director at Energy Insights, "Across the sectors we've studied, we see significant increases in the emphasis that sustainability projects have received. We're pleased to report that sustainability influencers are plowing ahead with executive support and that spells good news for software and service providers.

(In most cases, IBM does not have rights to the indvidual reports listed in the press release.  So if you would like a copy, please check with your market intelligence or analyst relations contact to see if it is available.  The Web conference is free.)

Thanks,

Charles
__________________________________________

IDC's Industry Insights Survey Reports Continued Support for Sustainability Initiatives Despite Current Economic Challenges

10 Dec 2008

51% of Business Executives Surveyed Look to Vendors for Enhancing Applications to Meet Demand

FRAMINGHAM, Mass., December 10, 2008 – Several of IDC's Industry Insights companies, a series of industry-specific research and advisory firms, have collaborated on a survey exploring trends in how businesses are approaching sustainability initiatives today and the continuation of budget support for green projects. The companies – Energy Insights, Manufacturing Insights, and Global Retail Insights – surveyed over 350 businesses in North America and results provide both a cross-industry perspective as well as an industry-specific outlook on the topic.

Worldwide attention has been riveted on the prospect of global climate change and the pressure to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. There has been growing public pressure for companies to incorporate "green" initiatives and sustainability as a core of their business strategy. According to the findings of the study, for businesses, there is a recognition that corporations have a role to play in sustainability, understanding and growing their business opportunities and consumers' competitive choices, and evaluating the different costs and profits.

Results of the survey also found:

  • 47% will buy new applications to implement green initiatives
  • 39% will contract with external consulting organizations to assist in implementation
According to Jill Feblowitz, practice director at Energy Insights, "Across the sectors we've studied, we see significant increases in the emphasis that sustainability projects have received. We're pleased to report that sustainability influencers are plowing ahead with executive support and that spells good news for software and service providers."

In addition to the published reports, analysts will review the findings in a complimentary Web conference on Thursday, December 11 at 1:00 U.S. Eastern time. Kimberly Knickle will cover the Manufacturing sector, Jill Feblowitz will cover the Utilities sector, Catherine Madden will cover the Oil and Gas sector, and Leslie Hand will cover the Retail sector. The reports published on the survey results are:

These reports are available to clients of Industry Insights and qualified members of the media. To schedule an interview please contact Sarah Murray at sarahbethmurray@gmail.com. For more information about the reports or the web conference, contact insights@idc.com.

About IDC's Industry Insights Companies

IDC's Industry Insights companies provide industry executives with research-based advisory and consulting services that enable information technology (IT) and business executives to maximize the business value of their technology investments. Industry Insights cover the industry value chain for energy, financial services, government, health, and manufacturing. Staffed by senior analysts with extensive experience in their industries, Industry Insights provide a portfolio of offerings that are relevant to both IT and business needs.

IDC is the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology and telecommunications industries. IDC is a subsidiary of IDG, the world's leading technology media, research, and events company.

[The Economist] Energy: Wind power has established itself as an important source of renewable energy in the past three decades. The basic idea is ancient, but its modern incarnation adds many new high-tech twists


Thanks to Milen

Wind of change
Dec 4th 2008 
From The Economist print edition



Energy: Wind power has established itself as an important source of renewable energy in the past three decades. The basic idea is ancient, but its modern incarnation adds many new high-tech twists


Corbis

Corbis

OLD-FASHIONED windmills, no longer used to grind flour, have become tourist destinations in much of the developed world. Most people would agree that wooden windmills fit pleasingly into the landscape, and are charming reminders of a simpler, agrarian past. But opinion is divided about their high-tech descendants, wind turbines, which are springing up across the world as a source of renewable electricity. To some they are a blight on the landscape; to others they are graceful, majestic structures that signal the shift towards new sources of energy.

The first wind farms sprouted in California in the early 1980s, beneficiaries of generous tax credits. Among the rolling hills of Altamont Pass, near San Francisco Bay, some early turbines can still be seen spinning, turning a portion of the wind's kinetic energy into electricity. With capacity of mere tens of kilowatts and a rotor diameter of 15 metres or so, these windmills are no giants, at least by today's standards. New machines typically have a capacity of 1.5-2.5 megawatts (MW), or 30 to 50 times that of the early Altamont Pass turbines, with rotor diameters as great as 100 metres, so that their blades sweep an area about the size of a football field.

The wind-power industry has come a long way since the first Altamont Pass turbines started to spin. Although wind generates only about 1% of all electricity globally, it provides a respectable portion in several European countries: 20% in Denmark, 10% in Spain and about 7% in Germany. Wind power is also on the rise in America, where capacity jumped by 45% last year to reach nearly 17 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2007. In China the pace has been faster still. Since the end of 2004, the country has nearly doubled its capacity every year. Globally, wind power installations are expected to triple from 94GW at the end of 2007 to nearly 290GW in 2012, according to BTM Consult, a Danish market-research firm. They will then account for 2.7% of world electricity generation, the company predicts, and by 2017 their share could be nearly 6%.

Wind power is attractive because it is a widely available and renewable source of energy that produces neither pollution nor climate-changing greenhouse gases. Once the turbines have been installed, the only "fuel" they need is the wind. And global wind resources are so vast that they could easily meet the world's current energy needs, at least in theory. According to a study by researchers at Stanford University, global wind-energy potential in 2000 was about 72,000GW—nearly five times the world's total energy demand.

What is more, the technology needed to tap into this source of energy is getting cheaper: the cost of generating electricity from wind power has fallen from as much as 30 cents per kilowatt hour in the early 1980s to around ten cents in 2007. Various incentives, in the form of tax credits and feed-in tariffs, mean that wind power is already cost-competitive with electricity derived from natural gas and even coal in many markets. With a tax of $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide, says Maria Sicilia of the International Energy Agency (IEA), electricity produced from wind could compete with fossil fuels in most markets even without subsidies.

Even without a price on carbon emissions, the growth of wind power is likely to continue. To combat climate change, the European Union has set itself the goal of deriving 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, with a large portion coming from wind power. In America, a recent report by the Department of Energy laid out a plan to reach 20% wind power by 2030. And these ambitions may be dwarfed by Asia, which seems likely to become the biggest market for new wind installations within five years.

The rush to erect wind turbines has filled manufacturers' order-books for the next year or two. But there are difficulties ahead. The wind does not blow all the time, and when it does, it often blows far away from cities that need electricity. For wind to continue its remarkable expansion, the industry will need to build new transmission lines and improve the integration of wind power into the grid. And because it is still dependent on subsidies, the industry remains vulnerable to the risk that incentives might suddenly be cut off (at least until a price is imposed on carbon emissions). In addition, some people remain to be convinced that wind farms make good neighbours.


Why the wind blows

When sunlight heats the Earth, it also heats the atmosphere. As hot air rises, cooler, heavier air rushes in to fill its place—thus creating wind. For more than 2,000 years people have captured this energy with windmills and used it to do useful things, such as grind grain or pump water. By the late 19th century, windmills were also being used to produce electricity, mostly in rural areas.

Compared with traditional windmills, however, modern wind turbines are far more efficient. Their rotors are pointed into the wind under computer control, and their blades exploit the phenomenon of aerodynamic "lift" that keeps aeroplanes in the air. Turbine blades are shaped like aerofoils, with one side curved and the other almost flat. This shape causes the air to flow more quickly over the curved side than the flat side, and the fast-moving air results in an area of low pressure on the curved side of the blade, which causes the blade to move and the rotor to turn. The blades are attached to a rotor hub, which is in turn connected to a drive shaft. But this shaft spins quite slowly, so a gearbox is used to get the drive shaft to turn a second shaft at a much higher speed, suitable for spinning a generator to produce electricity. In a wind farm, the electricity from multiple turbines is collected and fed into the grid.

Modern wind power got started after the first oil crisis in 1973, when countries began to look for ways to generate energy from sources other than fossil fuels. Denmark, which was almost entirely dependent on foreign oil for its electricity, was hit particularly hard. But it had one abundant potential energy resource: wind. So, in the mid-1970s, the country embarked upon an ambitious research project to develop the technology.

America also began research on wind turbines. With funding from the government, large organisations such as Boeing, an aerospace giant, and NASA, America's space agency, began designing large, multi-megawatt machines. Because bigger machines with larger rotors sweep a larger area, they can collect more energy from the wind. But many of these big turbines were expensive to operate and maintain.




Entrepreneurs and start-ups also began tinkering with designs that appeared on the American market in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those machines were much smaller, and there was a wide variety of them, including models with two-bladed rotors spinning about a horizontal axis, and vertical-axis machines. The Danes also experimented with different designs, but by the early 1980s a standard Danish architecture had emerged: the three-bladed, horizontal-axis, upwind machine.

Many of the early turbines had drawbacks. "The vertical-axis machines were not as aerodynamically efficient as the horizontal-axis machines, so they had to sweep out more area to capture the same amount of power and energy," notes Sandy Butterfield, chief engineer at the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado. (Vertical-axis designs are better at coping with variations in wind direction, but their blades are moving against the wind half the time.) Two-bladed rotors also had some disadvantages. Because they are not as dynamically balanced as three-bladed rotors, they are harder to design. They also typically spin faster to extract a similar amount of energy as three-bladed designs, which makes them noisier. And people prefer the look of three-bladed rotors.

The main difference between the American and the Danish designs was that the American machines were structurally softer. "American designs were typically intended to bend with the wind," explains Robert Poore of DNV Global Energy Concepts, a consultancy based in Seattle. Danish machines, by contrast, tended to be rigid and weighed about twice as much. In the early days engineers knew little about the impact of fluctuating winds on turbine structures, and the softer American designs tended to come apart under heavy loads.




Even though the technology was in its early stages, California installed more than 1.2GW of wind power, then almost 90% of global capacity, in the first half of the 1980s—an era that has come to be known as the great "wind rush". The rush was driven by a combination of federal tax credits and generous state incentives for wind power. Previously, wind turbines had been installed as single machines or in small clusters. But during the boom, turbines began to be installed in large arrays, or "wind farms". When the tax credits expired in the mid-1980s, however, America's wind-power industry came to a grinding halt. Many companies went bankrupt, and even some of the Danish firms, such as Vestas, fell on hard times, because they had come to rely on exports to California. But the Danish three-bladed design had emerged as the industry standard—though much work remained to be done to optimise the machines.

In the early days, wind turbines operated only at fixed speeds. If the wind became too strong, a simple mechanism prevented the blades and rotor from turning any faster. A limitation of this design was that the rotor had to be able to cope with wind fluctuations without being able to adjust its speed, putting enormous stresses on the blades and drivetrain. And to start with, knowledge about the impact of gusts on turbines was limited. To cope with the uncertainty, Danish engineers designed turbines conservatively, making them very heavy for their size.


Spin doctoring

Over the years, however, scientists at Denmark's Risø National Laboratory and other research institutions conducted tests which helped them develop mathematical models that could predict how the components would be affected by stretching, bending and vibration. This enabled engineers to optimise the machines and reduce their weight. By the late 1980s components started to become much lighter, allowing companies to scale up their turbines while keeping weight gain to a minimum.

Around the same time, researchers also started developing ways to manage and reduce the effect of gusts. Turbines equipped with variable "pitch" could adjust the angle of their blades and limit the force with which the wind was able to act on the rotor and the drivetrain, reducing wear and tear. This system worked even better in conjunction with variable-speed turbines, which were developed in the early 1990s. Such machines operate at high efficiency over a wider range of wind speeds, converting more of the wind's kinetic energy into electricity and allowing the rotor to adjust its speed to that of the wind, thus further reducing the impact of gusts on turbine structures.



Global wind resources are so vast that they could easily meet the world's current energy needs.



All these advances have allowed manufacturers to produce ever-larger machines and to build turbines with longer blades for a given output rating. This has several benefits. Since longer blades sweep a larger area and capture more energy from the wind, the turbine produces its rated amount of power at lower wind speeds, and will therefore run at its rated power a higher percentage of the time. And because the drivetrain does not have to be scaled up, the turbine generates more energy for a given cost.

Today's machines extract around 50% of the kinetic energy in the wind—close to the theoretical limit of 59%. However, the scaling up of machines and their components has also caused problems, in particular with gearboxes, which are exposed to lots of vibrations and movements inside the turbines, explains Flemming Rasmussen, head of aeroelastic design at Risø's Wind Energy Department. Enercon, a German firm, has developed a "direct-drive" system with a generator that can operate at low rotational speeds and does not require a gearbox. The problem with that approach is that such generators are very heavy, and tend to be more expensive. The jury is still out on whether this approach is superior, industry insiders say.


Size is everything

Despite some difficulties in transporting, deploying and maintaining large turbines, the industry still believes that bigger is better. Onshore machines are creeping up to about 3MW in capacity, and some offshore turbines on the drawing board are more than twice as powerful. Clipper Windpower, for example, is building a 7.5MW prototype that may turn into a 10MW machine once it reaches commercial production. "When you've spent the money to put in a very expensive foundation in the seabed, it pays to put the largest piece of equipment on top of it which you possibly can," notes Mr Butterfield.


Eyevine

Eyevine

Offshore installations cost around 40% more than onshore ones, which is one reason why only about 1% of wind power is generated offshore at the moment. But Robert Thresher, wind-research fellow at America's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, believes offshore wind has huge potential. Its capacity is expected to increase from 1.1GW in 2007 to 8.2GW in 2012.

If carefully chosen, offshore sites can offer higher wind speeds and less variation. Offshore farms can be positioned near densely populated areas where power is needed. They can also be positioned so that they can barely be seen from land and cannot be heard, which may spark less opposition. (In America many proposed offshore projects have run into resistance from locals who do not want turbines to clutter up the horizon, but in Europe about 20 offshore farms are already operating and many more are planned.) This could set the stage for a comeback by noisier two-bladed designs. According to studies at Risø, two-bladed designs could be about 15% cheaper than equivalent three-bladed turbines.

Wind power has made great progress, but the industry faces new growing pains. "Before it was a one-front war: we had to improve the technology," explains Dr Thresher. Now that turbines have evolved into sophisticated machines with elaborate control systems, new problems have come into view beyond simply improving their performance. One of these is the need to win greater public acceptance for the technology. As well as complaining that wind turbines spoil the view or make too much noise, opponents of wind turbines also worry about the danger they pose to birds. (Proponents respond that many more birds are killed annually by cats, vehicles and buildings.)

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to the wider adoption of wind power is the need to overhaul the power grid to accommodate it. Transmitting wind power from rural areas with strong winds to populated areas with high demand will require expensive new transmission lines. In addition, the power grid must become more flexible, though some progress has already been made. "Although wind is variable, it is also very predictable," explains Andrew Garrad, the boss of Garrad Hassan, a consultancy in Bristol, England. Wind availability can now be forecast over a 24-hour period with a reasonable degree of accuracy, making it possible to schedule wind power, much like conventional power sources.

Still, unlike electricity from traditional sources, wind power is not always available on demand. As a result, grid operators must ensure that reserve sources are available in case the wind refuses to blow. But because wind-power generation and electricity demand both vary, the extra power reserves needed for a 20% share of wind are actually fairly small—and would equal only a few percent of the installed wind capacity, says Edgar DeMeo, co-chair of the 20% wind advisory group for America's Department of Energy. These reserves could come from existing power stations, and perhaps some extra gas-fired plants, which can quickly ramp up or down as needed, he says. A 20% share of wind power is expected to raise costs for America's power industry by 2%, or 50 cents per household per month, from now until 2030.

Whether or not the 20% goal is reached in America, wind power is poised to make a significant contribution to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In America alone, about 35% of new electricity-generating capacity in 2007 came from wind power. The IEA projects that by 2030 wind power will produce 14% of the electricity in the European Union, accounting for 60% of its growth in electricity generation (though additional policy measures could increase this share even further). From a zero-fuel-cost, zero-carbon perspective, notes Victor Abate, vice-president of renewables at GE Energy, wind power is currently the most cost-effective and scalable technology available to mankind.

8.12.08

Commentary: What unites James Bond and dead monkeys... We may finally be ready to outfit our providers and peacekeepers with not just blue helmets, but also green ones


Commentary: What unites James Bond and dead monkeys
  • Story Highlights
  • M. Sanjayan: Nature is the ultimate safety net for the world's poor
  • Yet nature's ability to sustain human life is threatened, he says
  • Environmental damage can help cause civil unrest as in Darfur, he says
  • Sanjayan: Latest Bond flick based on real threat caused by environmental damage
By M. Sanjayan
Special to CNN

Editor's Note: M. Sanjayan is a lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve species by "protecting the land and waters they need to survive."
(CNN) -- I am watching a 10-year-old boy carefully burn the fur off a dead monkey. And I'm learning again why nature is the ultimate safety net for the world's rural poor, about one sixth of the world's population.
I'm in a little village sunk into the rain forests of Sierra Leone, West Africa, amidst a landscape pitted with the scars of a horrific civil war. The monkey is a white-nosed guenon, a relatively common crop-raiding monkey in these parts.
It will soon be food. Every bit from nose to tail will be thrown into a pot, along with some meager vegetables and a few drops of palm oil, to create a stew yielding about two spoons of meat protein per person, gauging from the small crush watching the boy's delicate handiwork. It's a small monkey in a big pot.
And it's not an uncommon sight. Spend time observing the daily rituals of rural village life in a developing country, and you will be impressed by the magnitude and diversity of services people derive from their immediate surroundings -- otherwise known as nature.
From food to fresh water, fiber to wood for fuel, animal fodder to fruits and nuts, and even soil fertility -- all are given freely by nature, and all are nearly always taken for granted.
Nature is what gets desperately poor people through crisis and calamity. Its capacity to protect and provide for humanity far exceeds humanity's financial and logistical abilities. But now that safety net is fraying. And the consequences are often bloody.
Civil conflict has multiple causes, but many are rooted in or made worse by the scramble for increasingly scarce natural resources.
For instance, close to half of the Darfur region of Sudan was forested 50 years ago, but by the time the conflict erupted in earnest there, that forest cover was down to just 18 percent.
The United Nations office providing humanitarian relief in the region says that such environmental degradation is the root cause of the conflict, and that even if fighting stops now, that degradation will have to be dealt with.
The environmental tie to the violence in Darfur isn't unique. Entire civilizations have disappeared throughout history because of environmental collapse.
In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond argues that even the 1990s genocide in Rwanda was the result of years of shrinking per capita agricultural productivity as forests were cut down, topsoil washed away and the remaining soil lost its fertility.
Unless the world provides aid and security not just to the rural poor but also to the natural safety net that protects them, these cycles of violence will continue.
The U.N. can monitor cease-fires and send peacekeepers to every hot spot of violence. But once the blue helmets of those peacekeepers are gone, the refugee camps demobilized and the West's attention distracted, people will still be scrabbling to live on an increasingly barren land, and the killings will begin anew.
We are at a point in science where we are finally able to appreciate and understand the interconnectedness of our global ecosystem, matching the globalized economy.
And economic analysts are responding to that science. We are beginning to incorporate the threats to nature (from climate change to deforestation) and the services it provides us (such as the importance of watersheds for freshwater production) into our economic models for development.
The time is ripe to broaden this connection. The recent turmoil in our financial markets has made people more receptive to new approaches.
The most surprising thing about the newest James Bond film "Quantum of Solace" is the premise: not a villain or a syndicate, but the loss of an environmental service in a poor, developing country. The loss of freshwater resources in Bolivia causes local hardship and destabilizes a sovereign government, setting the stage for 106 minutes of unadulterated action.
Farfetched as this premise might seem, something rather similar really did happen. Plans to manage Bolivia's fresh water through a private scheme did indeed spark a rural revolt and martial law was imposed in 2000; a second water crisis was resolved peacefully in 2005 under a new government.
Bond's celluloid fight is a sign of our times. We may finally be ready to outfit our providers and peacekeepers with not just blue helmets, but also green ones.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of M. Sanjayan.

[Green Community] At G.M., Innovation Sacrificed to Profits


From the NYT... This article seems to be only peripherally about green. But it won't take you long to see the relevance nonetheless.


December 6, 2008
At G.M., Innovation Sacrificed to Profits
By MICHELINE MAYNARD

General Motors did not apologize for anything in its first trip to Congress more than two weeks ago to plead for a federal rescue. The company's only problem, it insisted, was the current financial crisis.

"What exposes us to failure now is not our product lineup, or our business plan, or our long-term strategy," Rick WagonerG.M.'s chief executive, said in his testimony.

On its return visit to a skeptical Congress this week, however, General Motors bowed its head. "G.M. has made mistakes in the past," Mr. Wagoner told Congress, and named three: agreeing to expensive union contracts, not investing enough in smaller cars and failing to convert its plants so they could build more than one type of vehicle.

It was an unusual concession from a company that has rarely felt the need to apologize for anything, given its bragging rights as the world's largest automaker with operations in 35 countries, and as a company that has built 445 million vehicles and sat atop corporate America for much of its 100-year history.

But the mistakes Mr. Wagoner acknowledged do not begin to explain why General Motors finds itself on the brink of insolvency, begging Congress for financial help.

G.M.'s biggest failing, reflected in a clear pattern over recent decades, has been its inability to strike a balance between those inside the company who pushed for innovation ahead of the curve, and the finance executives who worried more about returns on investment.

The two views were rarely in sync — in effect, fighting over the steering wheel that controlled G.M.'s direction — and the internal battles distracted G.M. from spotting shifts in the marketplace.

Time and again over the last 30 years, G.M. has spent billions of dollars on innovative ideas like its Saturn small-car company in the 1980s and the EV1 electric vehicle in the 1990s, only to then deprive those projects of further financing because money was needed elsewhere or because they were not delivering enough profit.

The failure is frustrating to those who remember the high value placed on innovation by legendary company leaders like Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and Charles E. Wilson, who felt G.M. could sell cars to the masses by demonstrating it was out in front.

"Until the 1960s, innovation was part of G.M.'s DNA," said John Casesa, a veteran industry analyst with the Casesa Shapiro Group. "Now, it's a matter of trying to play catch-up."

One such area is hybrid technology, an area where G.M. might be leading if it had encouraged the engineers who led its hybrid development as long ago as the 1970s, and continued building on expertise it gained with the EV1.

While Toyota has sold more than 600,000 Prius hybrids in the United States since 2000, General Motors will not start selling its Volt plug-in hybrid until 2010, when it hopes to sell 10,000 of them in the first year.

"We were late on hybrids," George M. C. Fisher, the lead outside director on G.M.'s board, said in an interview this week. "Why were we late? We made a business decision as opposed to a marketing decision. That's probably a mistake, in retrospect."

Another, as Mr. Wagoner said last week, was its slow reaction to greater demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Although more are on the way, the only small car in its vast lineup of models to compete with the likes of the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris is the Chevrolet Aveo, a car made in Korea by G.M.'s Daewoo subsidiary.

General Motors has tried to answer the call for greater fuel efficiency in the short run by outfitting some of its pickups, big S.U.V.'s and larger cars with hybrid-electric engines, but they have not caught on with consumers.

In the early 1990s, the company lagged Chrysler's Jeep and Ford by five years in bringing an S.U.V. to market with mass appeal. Once it had ramped up its offerings, G.M. was reluctant to shift from big profitable vehicles to building small, less profitable cars, even when gas prices spiked.

By contrast, Ford, which also minted profits on a lineup heavy with S.U.V.'s, shifted its lineup faster to cars, although it still does not have one that can compete directly with the Fit and Yaris.

"We would have been chastised the other way if we had missed that opportunity," said Mr. Fisher, referring to its decision to focus so many resources on producing S.U.V.'s. "Giving consumers what they want is not a bad business decision."

Indeed, that approach worked well for G.M. for decades.

Its strategy of offering consumers an array of brands and choices, like the 70 different models across eight separate brands that it sells now, was meant to fulfill the goal set by its legendary chairman, Alfred P. Sloan, to offer a "a car for every purse and purpose."

(The idea was meant to contrast with Henry Ford's quip that a consumer could have any color he wanted, "as long as it's black.")

G.M. executives have long defended the myriad choices as necessary to defend the company's turf in a market crowded with competition both from across town as well as overseas. Likewise, its bet was always that G.M., with its enormous marketing and research and development budget, could afford to offer such options.

Only now, in its second plea to Congress, did it acknowledge what just about every industry analyst has said for years: that G.M. has too many brands, now that its market share has fallen by nearly two-thirds from its peak in 1960 to just 22 percent today.

G.M. said last week that it would focus on just four core brands — Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac — and sell or play down Saturn, Pontiac, Saab and Hummer.

The goal, it said in its new plan, is "to focus available resources and growth strategies on the company's profitable operations."

That may sound like an obvious strategy for any car company, but the automobile industry, like the aviation business, involves bets of billions of dollars that may not pay off for years, if at all.

For those willing to gamble and to follow through on their bets — like Chrysler did with minivans, like Toyota did with Prius and as Honda has done with its focus on fuel efficiency even when gas was cheap — the payoff in sales and reputation can be enormous.

But G.M., despite its tradition of fostering innovation, has often been impatient for profits to emerge.

Mr. Casesa said that pattern stemmed from the fact that so many of the company's top executives had a background in finance, not in engineering and designing cars and trucks.

For the last half-century, virtually all of G.M.'s chief executives, including Mr. Wagoner, have come from its financial side, which has judged most initiatives based on whether they will be profitable.

That "earn it" philosophy has led to the demise of some of G.M.'s most publicized efforts to try something new, like the EV1 electric car, which G.M. leased to owners from 1996 to 1999, before killing the program as too expensive.

It also led G.M. not to introduce any new Saturn models for five years during the 1990s, effectively starving the division of new products that might have lured in new customers.

By contrast, Toyota lost money for years on Prius, which never caught on in Japan until Toyota halved its price. Likewise, Prius might have remained a cult car in the United States had gas prices remained low. But Prius sold out once prices topped $3 a gallon, and gave Toyota political cover when it introduced the big Tundra pickup truck in 2007.

Worries over profits has also stifled innovation at G.M. Engineers actually started work on minivans a decade before Chrysler popularized them in the 1980s, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the son of a former G.M. president, who has advised G.M. for years. But G.M.'s finance staff refused to give the go-ahead.

"They looked at it and thought, 'Why would people need minivans if they had station wagons?' " Mr. Cole said. After Chrysler's vans were a big hit, G.M. tried to capture attention in the early 1990s with a series of slope-nosed vans derided as "Dustbusters" that failed to sell well. After other attempts, General Motors stopped selling minivans this year.

G.M.'s failure to press forward with its own hybrids was a deep disappointment to Robert C. Stempel, the former chief executive who gave the go-ahead to the EV1 program during his brief tenure in the early 1990s.

"I'm furious," Mr. Stempel said in a 2003 interview. "G.M. had the technology. The lead was there. I know it."

This week, Mr. Wagoner told Congress that G.M. would innovate once more, this time in the hope of securing some sort of aid. The company's restructuring plan, he said, is "a blueprint for creating a new General Motors, one that is lean, profitable, self-sustaining and fully committed to product excellence and technology leadership."

This new blueprint undoubtedly was not what Mr. Wagoner had in mind less than three months ago, when he stood before hundreds of employees and executives to mark G.M.'s centennial.

"What's our assignment for today and tomorrow?" Mr. Wagoner asked, and then provided the answer. "Above all, it's to demonstrate to the world that we are more than a 100-year-old company. We're a company that's ready to lead for 100 years to come."

Now the question is whether G.M. will make it to its 101st birthday as a solvent company.

Nick Bunkley and Bill Vlasic contributed reporting.