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Environment

Peak Waste and Poverty – A Powerful Paradox

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.

‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.

Geothermal Energy

Jessica Stewart's picture

For years, the thermal energy beneath the surface of the Earth has been used for many things. Bathing, agriculture, aquaculture, industrial or heating purposes, or even to generate power; the results are often impressive. The Earth’s structure radiates a constant flow of thermal energy outwards to the crust. This phenomenon is a natural, renewable source of heat which provides a substantial contribution to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

A Fourth ‘R’ ?

Kevin Wagner's picture

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…  Recover.  As the population in large cities worldwide grows, waste management becomes an even bigger challenge.  Recycling programs can divert large amounts of materials from landfills but some garbage still needs to be disposed of in landfills or Energy From Waste (EFW) sites.  EFW facilities are capable of recovering energy from garbage that would otherwise be unused in landfills.

EFW and landfill gas capture systems operate on similar principles:  produce steam to turn a turbine which generates electricity.  The difference is the fuel used to produce the steam.  Landfill gas based electricity generation relies on methane from the decomposition of organic material, while EFW facilities combust the solid waste.  Both are good options as they prevent methane gas from escaping into the atmosphere.  Methane has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide.  Both options sound good, so which is better?  The better question is:  ‘How much land and money do you have’?

Cities: The Drivers of Sustainable Human Development and Prosperity

Maggie Comstock's picture

People walking through city street

While green buildings, by their most obvious definition, address environmental impacts, they also have wide implications for human health, safety and productivity. Well-ventilated green schools can reduce instances of asthma in students. Green offices with day lit spaces boost employee productivity and attendance. Patients heal faster in green hospitals with views to nature.

Preparing Cities for Climate Change – Initial Lessons from Sandy

Ming Zhang's picture

NYC subway station damaged by seawater flooding during Hurricane SandyNew York City has been a global leader in proactively planning and preparing for climate change under Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s civic leaders. PlanNYC sets out clear goals and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30% and to increase the resilience of our communities, natural systems, and infrastructure to climate risks. It already started the process of adapting to climate change, including elevating infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plant, and expanding “green infrastructure” like marshes along the coast to buffer and limit flooding impacts.

But the events triggered by the unprecedented hurricane Sandy haven shown that what has been done is still not sufficient. What can we learn from the disaster? There will be a lot of valuable lessons coming out in the months ahead, as emergency responses are still ongoing and reconstruction are yet to start. Here are three early lessons:

Shades of Green Cities

Yue Li's picture

Seoul, KoreaWhen it comes to urban development, “green” has become the buzzword. Among the public, “green” is often understood to be synonymous with reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In policymaking, “green” has much broader implications. It can range from preventing, treating, and abating pollution, to preserving and restoring environmental quality. It may simply be providing basic urban services which improve the cleanliness of streets. Apparently, there are different shades of “green” — we could define interventions targeting global public goods as dark green and those focusing more on local public goods as light green. Among them, what is the right one for South Asian cities?

Practitioners and government officials from the region had intensive discussions on this question throughout a recent workshop on urbanization in Korea, organized by the World Bank in collaboration with the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.

A Renewed Commitment to Buildings and their Social Benefits

Maggie Comstock's picture

Rio+20 LogoAs the dust settles from Rio+20, I finally have a moment to reflect upon the outcomes of the historic Earth Summit Conference. The non-committal nature of the Rio text was a surprise to no one, yet the identification of buildings as an important strategy for the development of sustainable cities and urban infrastructure was still a “win” for the green building movement. Energy efficiency was also recognized as a strategy for combating climate change within both the developed and developing world. Our leaders’ acknowledgement of the role of the buildings sector in sustainable development is a testament to the benefits of green building that go beyond protecting the environment, as outlined in the United Nations Environment Programme Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative’s new report, "Building Design and Construction: Forging Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Development."

What Katherine Boo’s book tells us about the modern city: garbage has more mobility than citizens do

Sintana Vergara's picture


Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.

Mumbai Slum, Girl on SwingKatherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.

Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.

Rio+20 and Its Shades of Grey

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Copacaban PavementSustainable development always seems to come in shades of grey; excuses, obfuscation, conflicting demands, entrenched interests, and inertia can overshadow clarity on what needs to be done ‘on Monday morning’. But for some reason, like Rio de Janeiro’s iconic black slate and white marble sidewalks, sustainable development seemed to be a lot more black and white at last week’s big UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

Maybe it was the more than 20 hours that I spent stuck in traffic that helped bring clarity; or being one of the 50,000 visitors, each spending an average of $10,000 to travel, and emitting about 3.5 tonnes of CO2e (coincidentally what the global average annual per capita emissions needs to stay below, if we want to remain within a warming of 2° C). Flight delays getting there and back were more than 50 hours; leave alone the 24 hours in-the-plane. Was the Rio journey worth it?

UN Environment Programme, UN Habitat, World Bank Recognize New Global Protocol for Urban GHG Emissions, Encourage its Use

Dan Hoornweg's picture

In March this year, we posted a blog on the draft edition of a global protocol for city-scale GHG emissions, announced jointly by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, C40, and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Yesterday, a pilot version of the protocol was released at the UNFCCC climate meetings in Bonn, Germany. And today, UNEP, UN-Habitat and the World Bank expressed appreciation to ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, C40, and WRI for this accomplishment. To learn more about the significance of the protocol, read this news feature.

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