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Nov 30

Tomorrow marks the start of the UN-sponsored conference on climate change in Poznan, Poland. The conference will set priorities and a schedule for the upcoming year which will culminate in a global treaty to address climate change issues for the post-Kyoto Protocol period.

The Poznan conference will last two weeks, with high-level ministerial meetings taking place around December 11. Parallel to official negotiations are numerous press conferences, research presentations, and other lobbying by civil society groups. Governments also use the conference to announce major “green” initiatives to bolster their position at the negotiating table as well as to influence public opinion in their home countries.

The UN has a nice website that offers live streaming media of many of the deliberations–including press conferences from the various official delegations and civil society groups, as well as a twitter feed. I’ll be following certain elements closely and offer daily posts as I did last year during the Bali talks. If readers have any tips on other web sites following the proceedings, please offer them in the comments.

As a preview, there are a couple of things to look for during the talks. First, there will be considerable discussion on financing mechanisms targeted at adaptation for less-developed countries. Western countries will likely be less than enthusiastic about more development aid to the less developed world. This is compounded by the lack of agreement on what constitutes legitimate “adaptation” aid and the difficulties in measuring its effective use.

Secondly, the issue of forests will be prominent during the talks. There is a recognition that deforestation is a major contributor to climate change and that reforestation can help sequester carbon. The problem is assuring compliance with forestation schemes, developing the proper financial incentives for preserving forests, and taking into account the challenging issue of rural poverty that contributes to deforestation.

Thirdly, the positions of China and India will be under scrutiny. They will certainly be advocates for large payouts for adaptation and mitigation, but their willingness to commit to their own reductions (and such reductions should be binding) could influence the pressure put on the US and Canada

Finally, it will be interesting to see how much global financial uncertainty is invoked by Western countries to resist serious emissions targets.  Recent debates in Europe suggest there is a range of opinion within the European Union regarding meeting their long-stated reduction targets.  The US delegation will also be interesting to watch.  Although the official delegation will be headed by Paula Dobriansky, Obama allies will be attending, including Senators John Kerry and Amy Klobuchar.  While Kerry is not officially representing Obama, he will be a key voice in ratifying a post-Kyoto treaty as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  How the EU, US, and Kerry delegations speak of the balance between emissions reductions and global economic uncertainty will be interesting to follow.

Nov 25

In a previous post I mentioned the controversies surrounding wind farms in urban areas and–more specifically–on the Great Lakes.  According to the Toronto Star, a meeting was held in Scarborough last night and was attended by 1,000 people.The site of the proposed study area is in Lake Ontario, approximately 2 km off the coast of Scarborough (which is essentially an eastern suburb of Toronto).

The article portrays the meeting as a classic NIMBY battle: residents of the immediate area expressing concern with the impact of the project against hundreds of “outsiders” bused in for the meeting.

Nothing was resolved at the meeting as it was simply an “open house” that the developer (Toronto Hydro) needed to hold to get approval for the initial study.  Nevertheless, the rancorous debate depicted in the media reports suggests Toronto Hydro’s path towards realizing a wind project in the area won’t be smooth .

Nov 24

If the move to a post-carbon economy is going to take place, many argue that wind power will occupy a prominent place in the energy mix. There are numerous challenges associated with increasing wind power generation–especially in North America.

T. Boone Pickens’ grand plan for a massive West Texas wind farm requires an upgrade of the transmission grid. Getting the power from isolated parts of the country to population centers demands investment in capacity upgrades on the distribution end.

What happens, however, in instances where population centers are in close proximity to wind sheds? Transmission costs may be minimized, but a greater obstacle may be evident: greater degree of public scrutiny and possible NIMBYism. The Toronto Star reports on opposition to a proposed research project by Toronto Hydro to test the efficacy of wind generation in Lake Ontario. While a possible wind farm would produce green energy, the article reports that residents are worried about the aesthetic and environmental impacts of a large industrial facility in the lake.

The Toronto experience will be interesting to watch, as the Great Lakes are a “natural” site for wind facilities. The lack of topographic obstacles combined with population centers in the Great Lakes Basin, makes the region viable for wind power production from technical and economic standpoints.

While there has already been highly-publicized opposition to offshore wind projects in the US–most notably in the case of the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts–efforts to site relatively large projects near urban centers has not yet been tried.

With more concern over clean energy, however, this is likely to change. In the Chicago suburb of Evanston, for example, the city just endorsed a climate action plan [.pdf] outlining steps to meet Kyoto-level reduction targets. According to the plan, a 10 turbine wind farm situated several kilometers off shore in Lake Michigan could almost single-handedly meet the city’s greenhouse gas reduction target.

Although opponents to such projects are given prominent space in media reports, there is evidence to suggest that public opinion is more complex.  On Massachusetts’ South Shore, for example, a non-binding referendum supporting offshore wind on this month’s ballot was approved by an 87%-13% vote.

A Great Lakes Basin wind strategy might be a way to help ailing rust-belt economies, reduce US carbon emissions, and attract new industries to the region.  With a combination of fresh water and clean energy the rust belt could reinvent itself as the “green belt” with coordinated planning and investment.

Nov 21

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority approved a $400 million scheme to introduce “green lanes” to selected portions of the tollway system situated around the fringe of Chicagoland.

The details on how the scheme will work in practice are sketchy, but it will likely involve dedicating lanes that could be used by both high-occupancy vehicles (which would pay the normal user fee) and single-occupancy vehicles (which would pay a premium).  The article suggests that the charge could fluctuate to meet demand making it cost more during times of high traffic.

This type of taxation is clearly the wave of the future and can be deployed to insure that users pay the true costs of travel.  However, there are some serious deficiencies in the Illinois scheme.

The primary problem is where the authority is going to invest the revenues from the charge.  The article indicates revenues will be used to pay off the Tollway Authority’s capital improvement bonds and hence, finance the expansion of an automobile-centered form of mobility.

If congestion charging is going to be used to decrease air pollution and carbon emissions, it should follow the model of London and invest the revenues in low-carbon mobility options.  Illinois’ system is simply going to create a two-tier system of users, with those willing to pay given the luxury of speedy travel and poorer people will have to put up with possibly more congestion.  Revenues, in turn, will be used to build more highways creating more low-density development, higher regional levels of vehicle miles traveled, and more overall energy use.

On the whole it looks like this scheme will be a social stratifying, carbon intensive sprawl inducer.

Nov 20

On the heels of last year’s rising food prices and food shortage-related protests, many countries are devising plans to stave off a repeat of the instability.  The Financial Times is reporting on the South Korean plan: lease half of Madagascar’s arable land.

According to the article, Daewoo Logistics, has signed a 99-year lease with Madagascar to build farms with the explicit goal of exporting the food to Korea.

I don’t profess to be an expert on the natural and social ecology of Madagascar, but it is probably safe to say that its ranking of 143 on the Human Development Index indicates that the country is facing some structural economic problems.  With half the country’s population denied access to a safe water source, 65% of the population facing “chronic food insecurity” (according to the UN’s World Food Programme), and a GDP per capita of $923 annually, access to land and food are undoubtedly a problem for many Malagasay.

The article also seemed to imply that a “benefit” the country will be receiving from Daewoo is a plethora of infrastructure (i.e. roads).  This suggests that at least some of the land is isolated and, perhaps, currently forested.  The fact that the island is repository for biodiversity and has long had problems with deforestation, makes it troubling to think of the ecological impact this project might have on the country.

Also mentioned is the fact that this “outsourcing” of food production is gaining steam in other African countries, like Sudan and Ethiopia.  Unlike “traditional” globalization where firms extract resources to sell throughout the planet, this trend has a strong state component merging these new neo-colonialist-style arrangements in food security with state security.  Furthermore, the trend is being pursued by “less developed” countries like Korea and the Gulf States, further muddying up the terrain of possible geopolitical conflict.

Nov 19

Hot on the heels of his address by video feed to the Governors’ Climate Summit, Obama’s transition team has released a short video on how the team is managing climate change policy.

Featured in the video are Heather Zichal who was the main campaign staffer on the environmental policy desk and former EPA head, Carol Browner.

The video is light on actual policy, but I take it [along with yesterday's address] that climate change is near the top of the new administration’s agenda. The video features Browner talking about the need for integration across the various federal agencies in dealing with both energy and climate. This is a positive orientation for tackling these policy issues–although realizing inter-agency coordination is often difficult in practice.

Nov 19

The United Kingdom is held an auction today for about 4 million permits to emit greenhouse gases. Under the European Union cap-and-trade scheme, countries are shifting from distributing emissions permits for free towards auctioning. Auctioning the permits allows the “true” value of emissions to be ascertained whilst simultaneously providing governments revenue.

Gordon Brown’s government is under fire, however, as a result of its position of allocating revenue from the auction to its general treasury rather than to “green” projects. According to a press release from the UK government, the auction raised $81 million with each emission unit selling for about $20.

From the US perspective, it is interesting to note the criticism generated by Brown’s decision to put the money into the general treasury. The criticism stems from an assumption at the EU that auction revenues will help finance the transition to a post-carbon economy. This apparently is the norm in other EU countries, such as the Netherlands, and some European activists are arguing that auction revenues should be allocated to adaptation funds for developing countries that will likely be part of the post-Kyoto global climate change agreement.

President-elect Obama’s plan for a cap-and-trade scheme also uses an auction with a proportion of the revenues being dedicated to fund an independent venture capital organization which will invest in US low-carbon start-ups. With a depleted federal treasury and a global agreement that will likely require the US to give climate adaptation aid to poor countries, it will be important to “follow the money” as the new President negotiates with Congress on a climate bill next year.

Nov 18

Ok, I know we may be getting ahead of ourselves, but Chicago architectural critic Lee Bey has a great place for locating Obama’s presidential library: Pullman.

For those unfamiliar with the site: Pullman was a model company town erected in 1880 by the eponymous rail car magnate. As a way of solving the tensions between labor and capital, Pullman thought that if he provided adequate housing and a salubrious environment for his employees, they would be happy and productive workers. He acquired land 12 miles or so south of downtown Chicago and built both a factory and worker housing.

The depression of 1894 put his experiment to a test that ultimately resulted in failure. Declining orders for his rail cars caused him to reduce wages–however, most Pullman employees rented their homes from the company. The company maintained rents, making it difficult for the workers to pay rent. The result was a nationwide rail strike lasting for weeks.

Eventually the homes were sold to workers and the community was swallowed into the larger urban agglomeration of Chicago. The company continued production (I think) at the facility until the 1970s.

In the intervening years the historic residential district has been pretty well-maintained by property owners, but the elegant factory building has been in a state of disrepair and is currently owned by the State of Illinois.

While I’m not sure about the symbolism of situating Obama with the rather tyrannical George Pullman, Bey makes a compelling case for having a presidential library at the site.

For one it is close to where the President-elect began his career as a community organizer, helping displaced workers adapt to changing economic realities. Secondly, the factory building is a magnificent piece of architecture that has national and local historical merit. Finally, it could provide a much-needed injection of capital in a neighborhood that could use some economic development. Chicago has great tourist attractions, but the south side neighborhoods are largely ignored.

Come to think of it, a Presidential library in a working-class south side community might actually be THE great symbol for the Obama story.

Nov 18

US President-elect Barack Obama made a surprise videotaped address to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Governors’ Global Climate Summit today.

In the address he reconfirmed his commitment to the emissions reduction plan developed during his campaign: a reduction of GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and a push to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  He touted a cap-and-trade system as the mechanism to achieve these levels.

While not explicitly saying it, he seemed to confirm that he will auction off emissions credits and use the proceeds to invest, venture capital-style, in renewable energy entrepreneurs.  I had expressed trepidation on this issue last week given the views of one of his close climate advisers who seemed to favor giving emissions credits without charge to polluters.

He also mentioned next month’s UN meeting in Poznan and noted that he will be receiving reports from “members of Congress” who are attending.

These are positive steps that indicate he is taking his campaign promise seriously as well as showing the international community that he is eager to be a positive contributor to the UN process of developing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

Nov 17

With the New York Times reporting that personal bankruptcies have skyrocketed in the past few months and that many of the bankruptcies are related to people facing foreclosure in the fast growing Sunbelt states of Florida, Nevada, and California, I have been wondering about how the crisis has affected New Urbanism developments.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, New Urbanist developments were proliferating across North America–and were quite prevalent in the Sunbelt. For the uninitiated, “New Urbanism” refers generally to a design strategy that mixes land uses, utilizes a relatively high density form of development, and is built to accommodate multiple modes of mobility (public transit, walking, cycling). One of the debates amongst New Urbanist theorists and practitioners centers around whether or not these communities have contributed to the sprawling conditions they are meant to counter. If these walkable communities are isolated and are being built on the suburban fringe, aren’t they just contributing to unsustainable patterns of regional development? [As an aside, I would recommend Jill Grant’s recent book, Planning the Good Community: New Urbanism in Theory and Practice, which is a great primer on the movement.]

The foreclosure crisis has given rise to a whole host of related questions on New Urbanist development. One theme, we have seen in some news reports is that traditional suburbia is dead. High petrol prices, traffic congestion, and long distance commutes are making cities and urbanism the new choice for consumers. This, of course, augurs well for cities–but what are the implications for New Urbanist developments? Are they immune to the foreclosure crisis ?

I haven’t seen any academic studies, but Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel had a thoughtful column yesterday on the eastern Orange County New Urbanist development, Avalon Park. This development is a good example of a large New Urbanist community being built on the metropolitan fringe. Internally, it has good design and development, but its integration into the larger metropolis is lacking. As such, according to Thomas the community is suffering in the current crisis with large numbers of foreclosures and a decrease in home prices.

It would be interesting to see if other exurban New Urbanist developments are similarly feeling the pinch. Also, how are the exurban developments stacking up to New Urbanist infill projects? I would think that infill projects might be more resilient. As a comparison, Baldwin Park–which is an infill project much closer to downtown Orlando–saw the region’s second highest number of closings in the first half of 2008. Obviously, the foreclosure crisis heated up over the summer, but these initial numbers suggest some resiliency.

In the absence of a systematic study of whether the exurban New Urbanist communities face smaller numbers of foreclosures than in conventional developments, it is hard to authoritatively comment. However, I would speculate that these communities are not immune–and may even be more adversely affected–given their higher costs, making such communities less competitive in a sellers market.

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