The Future We Want: Reflections from Rio+20

“The Rio conference is over before it has even started.”  This was a common reaction among many participants and observers at Rio+20, following the release of what became the final conference agreement, The Future We Want, by the Brazilian hosts three days before the end of the gathering.  This happened even before heads of state arrived in Rio—ostensibly to negotiate and ultimately endorse a declaration that could unite governments in the face of rising environmental, social, and economic challenges.

The Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey explained that Brazil removed every item of controversy from the negotiation text:  “As a result, there were no discussions of any substance because there was nothing to discuss. The text was so anodyne there was nothing in it which could be disagreed.” Indeed, the high-level segment of the conference could best be described as anti-climactic.

In no way does the official text, The Future We Want, live up to the vision its title promises.  Some observers offered an unvarnished assessment.  Executive Director of Greenpeace International Kumi Naidoo deemed it “the longest suicide note in human history.”

Even with the knowledge that Rio+20 was unlikely to provide the kind of breakthrough needed to finally confront the massive environmental and social problems before us, it’s still easy to be disappointed.  The text is replete with formulations like “we reaffirm,” “we recognize,”  “we acknowledge,” and “we recall.”  These phrases emphasize how sorely lacking a set of concrete new commitments and actions are from the document.

Rio+ 20, The Future We Want (Photo via Flickr, by Commonwealth Secretariat)

The text profoundly disappoints, for instance, when discussing the prospect of green jobs—which ought to be at the core of a sustainable economy that works for the vast majority of people on this planet:

“We are encouraged by government initiatives to create jobs for poor people in restoring and managing natural resources and ecosystems, and we encourage the private sector to contribute to decent work for all and job creation for both women and men, and particularly for the youth, including through partnerships with small and medium enterprises as well as cooperatives. In this regard, we acknowledge the importance of efforts to promote the exchange of information and knowledge on decent work for all and job creation, including green jobs initiatives and related skills, and to facilitate the integration of relevant data into national economic and employment policies.”

Such generalities represent a massive step back from the so-called “zero draft” that was published in January 2012 and was based on inputs from a wide variety of stakeholders from around the world.  (Worldwatch was part of a “Sustainable Cities Working Group” organized by the Ford Foundation and coordinated by Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  The Working Group submitted a set of proposals for the zero draft.)

In the Rio+20 outcome text, government leaders declare, “We are determined to reinvigorate political will and to raise the level of commitment by the international community to move the sustainable development agenda forward…”  Yet, this is little more than clever wordsmithery to cover up an ugly but unavoidable truth— that many governments have effectively abdicated their responsibility in the face of grave danger for humanity.

This failure to act is the product of many factors.  One is simply a lack of vision.  Another is that many governments are cozy with existing economic power structures, and the influence of money on politics inhibits needed change.  There is also, understandably, fear of embarking on an unknown journey.  And the “international community” is such a collection of unequal entities—with vastly different levels of power and widely diverging interests—that it is challenging in the extreme to find a sufficiently ambitious common denominator among the 192 member states of the UN.

Seoul, Megacity (Photo from Flickr, by raunov)

The final portion of the conference document might be seen as throwing a bit of a lifeline to those who will argue that Rio+20 was worth the expense of time, effort, and carbon after all.  In a superbly written analysis, ”Life After Rio”, Mark Halle of the International Institute for Sustainable Development writes:

“The final third of the outcome … identifies priorities in a wide array of areas ranging from oceans, cities and food security to water, sustainable consumption, economic development and institutional design.  […]  It is not that it embodies firm undertakings or calls for action that are targeted, specific and accountable. It is more that it offers hooks on which different stakeholders can hang their hopes. By referring to the specific language in the outcome document, they can claim that their special topic was endorsed by the world’s governments in Rio and therefore constitutes a legitimate priority for attention.”

This, one might argue, is how the world will end: in the face of protracted inaction, there will always be a faint promise that perhaps next time round, governments will finally deliver.  This is the same illusion that makes thousands of people trek to successive annual climate conferences, from Bali and Poznan to Copenhagen and Cancun, and on to Durban and Qatar.

Fundamentally, the problem in Rio, as before in Johannesburg 10 years ago or indeed at the climate negotiations of recent years, is that governments are highly averse to making meaningful commitments, especially those that challenge established economic structures and corporate interests.

Too many decision-makers think that they are being asked to take painful, unpopular measures.  We need to move away from this conception.  We need to think not in terms of avoiding actions we don’t want to take, but in terms of identifying ways in which we can cooperate with each other in positive ways.

The point of a historic United Nations conference like Rio+20 is to marshal political will and establish an overall enabling framework for sustainability, providing positive reinforcement for those who act and penalties for those who refuse to act.  But it seems we need to rely much more on coalitions of the willing—actors that are moving ahead now and take advantage of the opportunities of greener economies, ready to show a way to those who are reticent and who apply the brakes at every opportunity.

These coalitions should not be thought of as blocks of countries, but rather as bringing together diverse actors across boundaries.  They might group together cities, progressive businesses, trade unions, grassroots citizen groups, and others, formulating specific goals and commitments. Such coalitions of the willing would not be closed clubs, smugly content with their pioneering status, but rather be open to others, and continuously challenging each other for further improvement.

Cities, for instance, are already important actors, and a coalition of 58 megacities was very active in Rio under the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group banner.  Another example is the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT), which includes UN organizations, multilateral development banks (MDBs) and other development organizations, NGOs, and business sector organizations.  SLoCaT was instrumental in bringing about a pledge in Rio by the eight largest MDBs to invest $175 billion to finance more sustainable transportation systems over the coming decade.

Still, voluntary action on its own will not save the planet.  Pioneering action needs to be combined with a set of increasingly ambitious goals, and will over time need to transform into binding norms and requirements.  Serious consideration should be given to preferential treatment accorded to those actors who commit to meaningful action.  Yes, this would fly in the face of current rules, especially those of the World Trade Organization.  But those rules take no account of the environmental and social challenges humanity faces, and we must challenge them.


(Written by Michael Renner, Edited by Cameron Scherer and Antonia Sohns)


Rio+20: An Ocean of Disappointment?

In the months leading up to last week’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a number of organizations and individuals called for an increased focus on the world’s oceans. As the Global Ocean Forum argued, they are after all “the quintessential sustainable development issue… Just as one cannot do without a healthy heart, the world cannot do without a healthy ocean.”

Illustration of the effects of ocean acidification, Pre-Industrial Revolution through 2100 (Source: Ocean Acidification Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

One of the many elements of truth behind this statement is that oceans represent a massive carbon sink, having taken up approximately 48 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Through this process of ongoing absorption, the oceans have played a vital role in maintaining global balance and mitigating the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions: the more CO2 we released into the atmosphere, the more the oceans absorbed. Unfortunately, the ocean – despite its vastness – has its limits, and this absorption comes at an enormous cost.

Once absorbed by the ocean, CO2 sets in motion a series of chemical reactions that decrease seawater’s pH level, making it more acidic and depleting the water of essential compounds like calcium carbonate that many marine organisms (including corals and mollusks) need to construct their shells. Ocean acidification – dubbed by some commentators as the other carbon dioxide problem, or ‘global warming’s evil twin’ – can also reduce respiratory efficiency in animals like squid and impair sensory ability in reef fish, making it difficult for them to locate prey.

Many of the organisms most immediately vulnerable to acidification – including krill and tiny, snail-like pteropods – lack the mainstream charisma of polar bears or whales, and seem at first unlikely to tug at public heartstrings. These creatures, however, comprise the base of many marine food chains; negative effects on their populations could cascade throughout the wider ecosystem – with disastrous consequences not only for marine biodiversity, but also for the millions of people who depend on marine and coastal systems for food and employment, echoing what the United Nations has already asserted: that threats to the world’s oceans threaten all three pillars of sustainability. Developing nations and small island states, in which a large proportion of the population often depends on reef fisheries for protein and employment, are therefore particularly vulnerable to acidification: yet another way in which those people least responsible for climate change stand to lose the most.

What happens when a pteropod's shell when placed in sea water with pH and carbonate levels projected for the year 2100 (Source: NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Carbon Dioxide Program)

Carole Turley, Senior Scientist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom, told an audience at Rio+20 that “ten years ago, the hairs stood up” on the back of her neck when she realized the disastrous extent of acidification’s likely impacts – and that nobody was talking about it. A decade later, thanks to ongoing research and, in large part, to public outreach efforts like the film ‘Acid Test’, the problem is much more widely discussed.

But discussion – although a common feature of international summits like Rio+20 – only gets you so far. An op-ed in the New York Times called the recent conference’s adopted text, The Future We Want, “a caricature of diplomacy”, riddled with ambiguity and vague non-committal statements of support. While delegates called for support in addressing ocean acidification, and reiterated the need to work collectively in order to stop it, the document falls far short of making any solid commitment to action. This is because doing so would require an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions – the prize that has eluded and exasperated climate negotiators for so long.

Even so, the op-ed stressed, there is hope. “If you looked around in Rio last week,” wrote the columnist, “you saw where the action really is – local and national governments, companies, NGOs, labor unions finding ways to get on with it.” Despite the vast and complex interconnectedness of the various threats facing our oceans – and despite the seeming inability of the international community to fashion a meaningful framework for emission reductions – there are indeed individuals, organizations, and companies throughout the world finding ways to “get on with it.”

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, oyster hatcheries on the verge of collapse installed water quality monitoring systems allowing shellfish farmers to protect young oysters from particularly acidic waters. Australia recently created the world’s largest network of marine reserves. Although this does not directly address acidification, the synergistic nature of environmental stressors means that protecting marine ecosystems from overfishing and habitat depletion can give organisms the strength they need to be more resilient in the face of increasing acidity.

There is also growing recognition of the need to protect certain vital marine ecosystems as carbon sinks. Although the contribution of forests in sequestering carbon is well known and supported by relevant financial mechanisms, a 2009 UNEP report determined that the critical role of oceans and coastal ecosystems has been overlooked for far too long. Critical ecosystems (including tidal salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass beds, and kelp forests) sequester CO2 more effectively and more permanently than terrestrial forests. Unfortunately, we are currently destroying these ecosystems at a rate of 7 percent per year. Organizations like The Blue Carbon Project work to provide so-called ‘blue carbon’ offsets through the conservation and restoration of coastal vegetation, in the model of well-known terrestrial mechanisms like the UN’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

Finally, the continuing growth of renewable energies documented by REN21 and Worldwatch in the 2012 Global Status Report demonstrates the actions being taken by individuals, communities, and governments to reduce carbon emissions. As Sylvia Earle, famed oceanographer and National Geographic explorer, explained in a recent interview, there is reason to be optimistic – even in the face of post-Rio+20 disillusionment. “I think one of the reasons I am truly optimistic,” she said, “is that 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, we didn’t know. We did not have the capacity to see, to understand, what we now can see, can understand, about what we’re doing to the life support system, the systems that keep us alive.” Now we know. And we can’t wait until the next international summit to “get on with it”.

Katie Auth is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

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Children’s Health: Aviva Must Advocates Shared Responsibility

By Carly Chaapel

On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. Tune in on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.

Must calls for shared responsibility for children’s health. (Photo credit: Barilla CFN)

Aviva Must, professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, has conducted extensive research on the effects of obesity on adolescents and pregnant women. In the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s new book, Eating Planet–Nutrition today: A challenge for Mankind and for the Planet, she describes the importance of shared responsibility, obesity prevention, and commitment from the agrifood industry for children’s health. Healthful eating habits, she believes, should be encouraged by not only parents, but also schools and health care providers. Action now to promote healthy lifestyles in the youngest children will help alleviate childhood obesity and serious health problems in the future.

Parents are the first people to take responsibility for their children’s health. They control the at-home food selection and dining rules, as well as encourage kids to engage in organized sports and free play. Must describes how “it is useful to think about child feeding as a shared responsibility, with parents responsible for serving food that is healthy and appetizing and children responsible for how much of it is eaten.”

As a supplement to healthy eating habits at home, schools should act as reinforcements for healthy lifestyles. Must points out that a significant portion of meals are consumed at school, and so the meals and snacks provided should make up a nutritious and balanced diet. Schools should ban certain unhealthy foods such as those common in vending machines. They should also bring cooking classes back into the curricula, which promote healthier eating at home, and value quality physical education programs that encourage all students to participate.

Pediatricians can also be reliable sources of education about nutrition and healthy activities for parents. They can ask parents about feeding behavior and counsel them on healthier habits, and they can advise children directly when they grow older. Health care providers should encourage more family meal time and less television usage. For annual weight screenings, Must suggests using the Body Mass Index (BMI) which provides a simply understood number based on weight and height.

According to Must, women should adopt healthier habits before pregnancy and breast-feed their children for weight management. Studies suggest that this will help young children be more receptive to a variety of flavors later in life. Childcare professionals could establish policies for meals, television, and exercise that are clear and enforceable. At home, parents are advised to adopt the US Dietary Guidelines, which recommend a balanced energy intake with physical exercise, consumption of certain nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains and vegetables, and less consumption of foods containing harmful ingredients such as saturated fats and refined sugars. In addition to the existing Guidelines, the government should establish new policies that address sweet beverages, screen time, and physical activity for everyone, even under the age of two.

Though the agrifood industry is driven by an economic incentive that may not reflect the healthiest options, Must urges the industry to adopt a business-wide commitment to healthful products. She does not support supplementing unhealthy foods with added nutrients because this practice makes it harder for consumers to choose truly healthy foods amid a vast shelf of options. Must believes that companies should sell products with fewer calories, more nutrients, and appropriate portions. Marketing of unhealthy products to children should be restricted. If a soft drink company, for example, were to lessen the sweetness of its product, consumers would get used to the new flavor and benefit from the lower sugar content. If the agrifood industry can work alongside parents, schools, and physicians, there is hope for a young generation of active, health-conscious individuals and communities across the globe.

What do you think? How do parents, schools, and physicians in your community take responsibility for children’s healthy eating habits and lifestyles?

Carly Chaapel is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

Tune in to the launch on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.

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What Works: Aquaculture

By Caitlin Aylward

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Aquaculture can be an effective means of feeding our planet and encouraging economic development. (Photo credit: Burt Lum)

As world population and incomes increase, so has the demand for fish and seafood. As of 2009, the world’s total fish production from fish caught in the wild and aquaculture reached an all time high of 145.1 million tons, a number that is only growing.

But aquaculture can be a way of procuring seafood that not only protects wild fish species and the environment, but also helps alleviate global poverty and food insecurity.

Aquaculture, in contrast with commercial fishing of wild fish, is the cultivation of fish and other aquatic life under controlled marine or freshwater environments.

According to the FAO, aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing source of animal protein, providing around half of the world’s fish supplies. From the years 2000 to 2008 alone, fish production from aquaculture has grown more than 60 percent, from 32.4 million tons to 52.5 million tons annually.

Small-scale fish farms in Asia-Pacific currently produce the most fish and seafood from aquaculture in the world, accounting for nearly ninety percent of the global aquaculture production. China, the world’s leading producer of farmed fish, specializes in carp production, while Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India cultivate most of the world’s stock of shrimp and prawns. Although the 2010 FAO report on aquaculture concedes that precise data are lacking, the report nonetheless suggests that the recent growth and value of farmed fish and seafood is widely recognized as an economic boon for small-scale aquaculture farmers in these regions.

Unfortunately, as the demand for fish intensifies, producers are adopting more intensive, industrial-style methods of farming fish. These “factory farms of the sea,” share many of the same environmental and ethical problems as those on land. The detrimental environmental impact of fish farming as it is currently practiced in North America, Europe, and parts of Latin America, is undeniably cause for concern.  Salmon farming in particular has contributed to water pollution along with a host of other environmentally harmful outcomes in these regions. Properly managed aquaculture systems, however, have the potential to be sustainable and even restorative to the surrounding environment, particularly when integrated with plant agriculture.

Aquaponics, which is the combination of aquaculture and soilless plant agriculture known as hydroponics, can be a  sustainable and effective means of food production. Farmers using aquaponic techniques grow their crops hydroponically either outside in an open body of water that contains fish, or in a laboratory in a tank with aquatic life. The fish waste then fertilizes the plants while simultaneously cleansing the water of dangerous toxins for the fish, much in the same way as trees convert carbon into oxygen. The sustainable and productive nature of this symbiotic relationship between fish and plants make aquaponics an ideal method of food production.

Aquaponic farming is not a new innovation. The ancient Aztec Indians used floating gardens known as chinampas to cultivate the majority of their food. The Aztecs grew corn, beans, squash and tomatoes among other crops on the chinampas, which were fertilized by the waste from fish and aquatic life in the water. Similarly, countries in the Far East like China have long used aquaponic techniques in cultivating rice. Small-scale aquaculture farmers throughout the world still use aquaponic techniques to grow food for their communities today.

Although intensive industrialized aquaculture systems are prevalent in North America, Latin America, and Europe, small-scale aquaculture farmers are the primary commercial producers of farmed fish in Asia-Pacific and Africa. These small-scale aquaculture farmers have the capability to contribute to their communities’ economic and nutritional welfare. While, regulations against intensive and environmentally damaging aquaculture practices ought to be created and reinforced, aquaculture can potentially be an effective and sustainable means of encouraging economic development and feeding our growing planet.

Tell Nourishing the Planet “what works” in the comments, and have your answers featured on the blog.

Caitlin Aylward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Eating Planet: Carlo Petrini Discusses Buying Food and Paying for Your Values

By Marlena White

On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. The event is full but please tune in on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.

In Eating Planet, Carlo Petrini discusses paying for food in terms of values. (Photo credit: Bruno Cordioli)

In a chapter introduction for Eating Planet – Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet—the newly released book from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition—International Slow Food Movement founder Carlo Petrini discusses what paying a fair price means, and why it’s important for the sustainability of the world’s food supplies.

Petrini begins by explaining that sustainability means the plans we make, both in terms of individual and higher-level actions, must be able to last over the long term and on many different levels, taking into account social, economic, and environmental factors. With its many impacts on these factors, he says, food is crucial to sustainability as a whole.

According to Petrini, what we eat, including the time and money we put into it, is an investment in both our health and the state of the environment. He says it also reflects a certain set of values that can have strong implications for sustainability. These values may be the bottom line of overall profits, or longer term considerations like protecting the health of ecosystems and the livelihoods of our food producers. Petrini argues that the values inherent in our food should be included in their price, especially after accounting for what these values contribute to the sustainability of the planet.

Petrini believes that abundant and healthful—and ultimately sustainable—food supplies depend on fertile soil and biodiversity that links climates with appropriate crops. We must therefore, he says, value agriculture that respects the natural settings in which it operates. Farmers play a central role in this as both the producers of our food and stewards of the land on which it is grown—what Petrini calls farmers’ “multifunctionalism.” According to Petrini, “Farmers should be repaid for the many services that they perform for society and for the earth, not just for the products that they put on the market. This money pays for certain values, not just for the price of a product.”

In this multifunctional role, Petrini explains how farmers also contribute to the physical beauty of the land they use, and how this has implications for sustainability. Caring for physical environments, he says, ensures not only their health and wellbeing, but their beauty, as well. In this way, ethics and aesthetics in the context of sustainability are essentially one and the same. Farmers are responsible for both the beauty and wellbeing of the land used for food production, and this is a service, Petrini argues, for which they should be compensated when consumers buy the food they grow.

In addition to his discussion of food prices and values, Petrini includes several additional recommendations to help achieve a more sustainable food system. In light of how much food is wasted every year, he states that slightly less food should actually be produced, and that what is produced needs to be of higher nutritional value. Food should also be distributed intelligently, with production and consumption spread more evenly across the globe and occurring on a more localized level.

Petrini points out that consumers increasingly support paying for their values when purchasing food, but that political systems still largely view agriculture as its own entity separate from any values other than making a profit. Despite a lack of change at the policy level, Petrini asserts that our individual choices are still crucial to deciding how our food is produced. He says that though what we eat is an everyday decision, it “is actually a decision that has the power to change the world.”

What do you think? What are other ways to make food production more sustainable? Let us know in the comments!

Tune in to the launch on the 28th via livestream: we will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.

Marlena White is a research intern for Nourishing the Planet.


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Women’s Major Group “Disappointed and Outraged” at the Rio+20 Outcomes

By Seyyada A Burney

Last week’s Rio+20 Conference brought together 50,000 NGOs, policymakers, and activists from around the world to discuss sustainability. Unfortunately, many groups, including organizations that support reproductive health and women’s rights, went home disappointed with the final outcome document, The Future We Want. In a statement released Sunday, the Women’s Major Group (WMG) at Rio+20, which represented over 200 civil society women’s organizations, expressed anger and frustration at the results of the final outcome document.

Though there was unanimous agreement on women’s rights, discussions at Rio+20 left little time for affirmation of those rights and concrete commitments. (Photo credit:

Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), noted: “Two years of negotiations have culminated in a Rio+20 outcome that makes almost no progress for women’s rights and rights of future generations in sustainable development.” Among the document’s most notable omissions are the issues of reproductive rights, access, and the links between gender and climate change.

“The lack of recognition of reproductive rights as essential to sustainable development was especially disappointing,” said Anita Nayar, Executive Committee Member of Development Alternatives with Women for A New Era (DAWN). Reproductive rights are universally recognized as human rights, and the 1992 Earth Summit document, Agenda 21, and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development Program of Action already made the connection between reproductive health and sustainable development. However, The Future We Want fails to even mention sexual and reproductive rights. The document is also devoid of any firm commitments to improving women’s rights to land and property, effectively depriving half the world’s population of access to vital natural resources. Combined, these two oversights fail to acknowledge the ways in which women are more frequently and adversely affected by climate change.

Gabizon concluded, “At Rio+20, governments had a historic chance to take bold steps to end poverty and environmental destruction, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of our societies, to take concrete measures to fully implement women’s rights and women’s leadership.  We now risk increased poverty, inequities and irreversible environmental damage.” However, a positive development at Rio+20 was the introduction of the term ‘Buen Vivir’, meaning ‘to live well’, in discussions and ministries. “Buen Vivir means to take a major turn away from “throw-away” societies in which nature and culture are only considered for their inherent monetary value, to sustainable societies where women’s rights, indigenous peoples rights and indeed, all human rights to live well in harmony with nature are seen as the Future we Really Want, which is also the Future We Need.”

Click here to read the full press release.

Seyyada Burney is a Research Intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Performance Data is Essential in Advancing Building Efficiency

LEED Platinum Manitoba Hydro Place had its performance meticulously tracked for two years to determine whether it was living up to its ambitious goals. In fall 2012, Manitoba Hydro is expected to publicly release the full schedule of performance results. (Source: Flickr user stevecoutts)

Data collection is increasingly recognized as a priority in the evaluation and evolution of green buildings. Though the importance of green building design and its impact on climate change have been well documented, the actual performance of many green buildings often fails to meet expectations. There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon, and the ability to accurately measure the energy efficiency of buildings is crucial to improving performance and standards. Performance data makes it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of different building strategies and technologies. This information is instrumental in the advancement of codes, standards, and best practices. Below, I will highlight a few initiatives that are attempting to gather and process performance data from buildings.

Data Collection Initiatives CBECS

One such effort to gather building energy information is a survey conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Office of Energy Consumption and Efficiency Statistics. Through the use of a national sample survey called the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the EIA provides data that supports the development of energy standards and codes. The latest iteration of the survey is set to include information from approximately 8,500 commercial buildings. The two previous attempts to deliver survey results were derailed by funding issues: in 2007, a less exhaustive data gathering technique was used due to a lack of funding; more recently, poor implementation of the new technique led to faulty data that could not be used. In 2011, the survey was suspended as a result of budgetary cuts by Congress.  Due to these setbacks, the latest available data dates back to 2003. Despite resuming work on a 2012 CBECS, there are still budgetary issues that might sidetrack the program.

Building Performance Partnership

Another organization seeking to collect building performance data is the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC has developed the Building Performance Partnership (BPP) as a means to track and document the performance of LEED certified projects. Using tools like the EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager for commercial buildings, and Wego Wise for multifamily residential buildings, the USGBC plans to begin accurately and continuously tracking the impact of LEED standards in quantifiable terms. As the project progresses, the USGBC hopes to advance energy efficiency by sharing its database of information with different stakeholders in the building industry.

Despite a New Buildings Institute study attributing a 25-30 percent improvement in efficiency for LEED certified buildings over the national average (using the 2003 CBECS information as the baseline), 25 percent of the buildings in the study fell significantly short of their projected energy saving targets. This inconsistency highlights the importance of collecting performance data. While LEED provides a framework of strategies to achieve more efficient buildings, there are a myriad of possibilities by which to meet the requirements. What the USGBC hopes to gain from the BPP is a performance database which can inform the design and development of green buildings.

Applying Data

Building codes and standards are essential in the progression of green buildings. One of the most important elements in establishing codes and standards is developing a minimum efficiency standard from which to work. As technology advances, so should our expectations for energy efficiency and building performance. Current building regulations are beginning to incorporate more stringent energy efficiency standards, but the collection and analysis of performance data will ensure that new benchmarks are set and achieved continuously. Beyond codes and regulations, programs like LEED and the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) that seek to raise the bar in building performance can utilize data as a means to regularly evaluate, update, and validate their methods.

Initiatives like the Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) by the U. S. Department of Energy also present opportunities to apply building performance data. The CBI’s goal of advancing energy efficient technology is one that would be greatly enhanced by quantifiable information that reflects the performance of different strategies and technologies. With this information, industry leaders can ensure that the most effective technologies are being used and that those in development are meeting industry standards.


The funding issues that face CBECS present a significant challenge to the collection of building data performance. Though players like the USGBC and organizations in the private sector may begin to lead the charge in data collection, it is still important to set a baseline in the short-term for the development of codes and standards.

Another potential challenge is accurately quantifying the impact of occupant behavior on energy efficiency. Though a building may be designed to the correct specifications, occupant behavior can be difficult to predict and often leads to discrepancies between the expected energy use (derived from energy modeling during the design process) and post-occupancy energy use. Technologies likesmart meters and building management systems are making the collection of data more accurate and accessible to building occupants. Features like performance dashboards, which display real-time energy usage, are proving to have a positive impact on occupant behavior. These technologies can help us understand and quantify how different factors influence occupant behavior. These insights could eventually lead to design elements that promote more efficient behavior.

Green buildings have seen tremendous growth in the past decade, but for progress to continue, it is crucial that we have an accurate understanding of their impact on the environment. The collection of building performance data will help to ensure we use the most effective sustainable building strategies, and that building codes and standards properly address energy efficiency today and in the future.

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Becoming Great Ancestors: How We Can Protect Future Generations

By Leah Baines

Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a talk by Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, about how our society can become great ancestors by protecting future generations from pollution and a toxic environment.
In a presentation she gave in January at TEDxMaui, “Becoming Great Ancestors,” Raffensperger discusses the importance of the precautionary principle, which is the idea that if there is any risk involved in making a major decision, you should instead seek out the best alternative and choose that. She relates this principle to the Iroquois Confederacy’s “Seven-Generation Rule,” which states that before making a wise decision, consider the impact it will have in seven generations.

Raffensperger’s presentation is inspired by her work with an abandoned mine near the Arctic Circle, after calculating that its 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide pollution will negatively affect the next 10,000 generations. She calls for the designation of “legal guardians of future generations” that will “audit” current actions and decisions as to how they will affect the future. “Imagine if future generations actually had rights,” she says. “They have the right to be born without being polluted.” Furthermore, “if we take care of future generations, we are likely to take care of this generation.”

Click here to watch Raffensperger’s talk.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Are Biofuels the Answer to America’s Energy Challenges?

Last summer, President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Energy and Navy would invest up to $510 million in order to spur the biofuels industry and enhance U.S. energy security. As a result of government support through tax breaks and subsidies, both ethanol and biodiesel have been successfully integrated into the U.S. energy market. However, while biofuels are generally perceived as more “sustainable” than regular gasoline, controversy remains over the environmental costs of their production, as well as their impact on food prices.

Ethanol stored in Brazil: Raízen, the featured facility, will produce 2 billion litres of ethanol a year (Photo via Flickr, by Shell).

At the most basic level, biofuels are simply material from living or recently living organisms that is converted into fuel. Ethanol is derived from the starches and sugars in plants, and biodiesel is derived from sources such as animal fats, vegetable oil, and cooking grease. To reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and other pollutants during fuel burning, ethanol is typically blended with gasoline, and biodiesel is blended with diesel or used in its pure form.

In theory, the carbon emissions released from the burning of biofuels are offset during feedstock cultivation, when the plants photosynthesize carbon dioxide and store it in their biomass. However, the many other phases of the biofuel life cycle—including the farming and refining processes, and the transport of the fuels from producer to consumer—may result in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Growing ethanol feedstocks such as corn and sugar cane requires huge amounts of land, increasing the global demand on already limited farmland. To boost agricultural productivity, growers apply vast quantities of fertilizer during farming, which releases nitrogen dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. Corn, in particular, generally requires more fertilizer than most other biofuel feedstocks.

In light of these and other challenges, including rising food prices, rampant deforestation, and widespread water shortages, biofuel does not appear to be the solution to U.S. energy needs. As ethanol production increases, and as more corn is required for fuel production, it is clear that biofuels in their current form are not a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. They will only make the country dependent on corn, as it is now dependent on oil.

To address the shortcomings of current biofuel production, scientists are developing new techniques and feedstocks to enhance sustainable production. Switchgrass, a North American perennial tallgrass, sequesters far more carbon dioxide than corn and other row crops, and is drought tolerant, making it a promising alternative feedstock. It requires little fertilization and can grow well on marginal land. Moreover, switchgrass cultivation would not compete with food cultivation, although some farmers may eventually switch to growing switchgrass instead of food crops if it were profitable to do so.

A specialist in algae science researches biofuel production in Los Alamos National Laboratory (Photo via Flickr, by LANL).

The use of switchgrass for ethanol production is becoming increasingly viable. Until recently, scientists had struggled to release the polysaccharides from the plant’s tough lignin. To reduce these complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, researchers introduced a corn gene into switchgrass’s DNA, which increases its starch content, making it easier to extract the sugars.

While this discovery makes switchgrass an appealing alternative to corn, more research is needed before this grassy feedstock will be widely adopted. Switchgrass has been planted in a monoculture for only a few decades, so the long-term effects on land use and carbon sequestration are uncertain. In addition, an energy-using pre-treatment is necessary to efficiently release the polysaccharides. Despite these early uncertainties, switchgrass offers a potentially cheap and efficient way to produce clean fuel for the future.

Another promising biofuel contender is algae, which brings similar benefits to switchgrass in terms of both carbon sequestration and ease of production. Although it is too early to know if biofuel is the sustainable solution to U.S. gasoline demand, the government must support continued scientific and economic research into these and other approaches to sustainable biofuel production.

(Written by Alison Singer, Edited by Antonia Sohns)

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Saturday Series: An Interview with Mary McLaughlin

By Olivia Arnow

Today, Nourishing the Planet kicks off a new Saturday Series, in which we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone? E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Trees That Feed Foundation reforests tropical areas with edible fruit trees. (Photo credit: Trees that Feed)

Name: Mary McLaughlin

Affiliation: Trees That Feed Foundation

Bio: Mary is the founder of Trees That Feed, a non-profit foundation dedicated to maintaining affordable and sustainable food for tropical countries, including Haiti and her homeland Jamaica. The foundation strives to feed people and benefit the environment by reforesting areas with trees that produce edible fruit to improve diets, reduce foreign dependency, and restore ecological balance to the land.

What type of trees does the foundation plant?

I grew up eating breadfruit in Jamaica and I believe it to be one of the most sustainable tropical foods. Our organization plants a variety of trees that produce avocado, mango, papaya, pomegranate, acai, almonds, and cashews, but we primarily focus on planting breadfruit trees.

Breadfruit trees have a particularly long lifespan of 50-70 years and not only absorb carbon dioxide, but also produce a potato-like product that can be roasted, boiled, or fried.

How has the foundation successfully planted these trees?

We work with the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. They conduct research on nutrition, growth patterns, and seasonality of production and we buy seedlings from them to support their efforts. From there we give the seedlings to local agencies, which distribute to small farms and local schools.

So far, we have planted over 12,000 trees in the last 2 ½ years.

In what ways has planting breadfruit trees benefited the local economies in Haiti and Jamaica?

Though breadfruit can be picked and eaten right from the tree, it can also be used to make breadfruit flour. We’ve collaborated with Dr. Camille George, professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, to create a low-cost, low-energy method for producing the flour. Many may not know, but breadfruit flour is an extremely viable product as it is gluten-free and carbon-positive because no electricity is required to produce it.

Trees That Feed supplies a ‘Factory in a Box’-consisting of a shredder, dryer equipment and grinder- to locals interested in creating their own flour micro-enterprise.

The goal is to have an end product that not only feeds locals and benefits the environment, but also provides a livelihood for local people.

How do you determine which geographic areas to distribute seedlings?

Because our trees are non-invasive, we look for the right climate and then look for good partners on the ground, who distribute to small farmers and local schools. In Jamaica, we work with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Rural Agricultural Development Agency, and the Jeffrey Town Farmers Association.

In Haiti, we have many great partners: One Village Planet, Three Angels Children’s Relief, Fondation Enfant Jesus, and The University of Grand Anse.

How do you determine whether your efforts are making an impact? Has the response been positive?

We routinely make visits to Haiti and Jamaica for field-testing to see how well our trees are doing and to speak to farmers directly. We also help to develop small local co-ops to promote flour markets as well as work directly with merchants assisting in marketing and packaging to increase sales.

We also actively work with the local ministries of agriculture to provide recent developments in research from our partners.

That said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Our trees are helping reforest the land, feed local populations, and provide individuals with a steady income.

What’s next for Trees That Feed?

Since our trees only produce seasonal fruit, we are working with the Breadfruit Institute’s living collection of 130 varieties in the hope of providing a plant with year-round production.  Furthermore, our goal is to plant 30,000 trees in Haiti and Jamaica and possibly expand to other tropical countries.

To learn more about Trees That Feed, visit their Facebook page.

Olivia Arnow is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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